Special Reports

Bridge toll dodgers might face $50 fine

The state won't start collecting tolls on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge for 3 1/2 years, but state officials are gearing up to go after drivers who try to cross the bridge without paying the toll - perhaps with a $50 fine.

The Washington Transportation Commission is expected today to ask the Legislature for permission to use cameras to catch scofflaws and to impose a fine of $25 to $50.

David Pope, toll systems manager for the Narrows Bridge project, said the state Department of Transportation plans to use a two-step approach to enforce toll collection on the bridge. The second bridge is scheduled to open to traffic in April 2007 with an initial round-trip toll of $3.

At first, the agency would send a letter to offending drivers, asking them to pay up. The fine for that first step would be enough to cover the cost of sending the letter, perhaps $3 to $5, Pope said.

But if drivers still refuse to pay, they would be mailed a ticket that could carry a higher fine, one that would be "enough of a deterrent" to make the person choose to pay the toll instead of trying to avoid it, Pope said.

The amount of the fine is up to the state Supreme Court, which sets penalties for most traffic infractions. The transportation commission would suggest an amount, he said.

At today's meeting in Olympia, the commission also will discuss what other steps its members want the Legislature to consider when it opens a 60-day session on Jan. 12.

That includes authorization to use cameras to record the license plate numbers of vehicles that cross the bridge without paying the toll and using those pictures as evidence of an infraction.

Although the cities of Lakewood and Vancouver have been using cameras to catch people speeding and running stop signs, there is no statewide law that allows their use, said Penny Nerup, manager of the police traffic services program at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

The traffic safety commission has given the cities federal funds for a pilot program for so-called "camera cops," and the money has been spent under the authority of a proviso the Legislature put in the state budget.

In most instances, a law enforcement officer must personally observe a moving violation to write a ticket. But with the new technology that will be used on the bridge, most drivers won't stop and pay a toll at a booth. Rather, they will have transponders in their vehicles that will be read by scanners alongside the highway.

That sort of technology requires a different method of enforcing toll collections, Pope said.

The commission wants the Legislature to pass a law that authorizes the state or private contractor to take pictures of vehicle license plates - but not their drivers or passengers - and then check with the state Department of Licensing to see who owns the vehicle.

A ticket for not paying a bridge toll would be treated much like a parking ticket - that is, it would not be considered a moving violation and therefore would not go on a person's driving record. However, failure to pay outstanding toll tickets could keep a driver from renewing his or her driver's license.

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436


SIDEBAR: Toll proposal

First violation: A warning letter asking for the toll and a $3 to $5 fine

Ignore warning: Get a ticket of $25 to $50

What's next

• The state Transportation Commission meets at 11 a.m. today in Room 1D2 at 310 Maple Park Ave. S.E., Olympia, to consider the toll-enforcement request.