Special Reports

Decision on bridge car tolls delayed

A citizen panel delayed making a recommendation Saturday on tolls for the Narrows Bridge, including how much to lower the cost for drivers who install automated collection devices in their vehicles.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee scheduled another meeting for Wednesday night in Gig Harbor to make its recommendation.

The choice boils down to a complex numbers game. Committee members want more data from the state Department of Transportation before making their choices, said chairman Bob Ryan.

Those numbers involve revenue projections for vehicle trips and how much money would be paid when the tolls are set at different prices, Ryan said.

But Ryan said the nine advisory committee members agree with Gov. Christine Gregoire’s proposal for the state to provide $10 million to offset reduced tolls for drivers who install the automated devices, called transponders.

That $10 million potentially is enough money to discount the $3 full-fare round-trip toll to $1.50 for the first year for transponder users.

Ryan, an accountant who lives in Tacoma and works in Gig Harbor, said various prices – including $1 and $1.50 – are being studied for the lower toll.

The projected vehicle trips and toll revenues change with each proposed toll, including the expected $3 regular toll and the lower transponder toll. The goal is to get about 50 percent of drivers using transponders.

State highway officials suggested the half-price discount to encourage drivers to install transponders. More people having tolls electronically subtracted from their transponder accounts means fewer drivers stopping at tollbooths. That will help make traffic flow smoother.

The Citizen Advisory Committee needs to make its recommendation in time to deliver them Jan. 16-17 to the state Transportation Commission. The commission has final authority to set bridge tolls.

The Legislature, which opens its 2007 session on Monday, ultimately would have to appropriate the $10 million to buy down the tolls. State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, already has opposed taking away $10 million from other transportation projects to lower tolls.

Jayne Nilsen of Fox Island was one of several people who spoke during Saturday’s meeting in Gig Harbor in support of lower tolls for transponder users.

“I just think it’s important to get as many people to get these transponders as possible,” Nilsen said.

What’s next

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee will meet again from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in Gig Harbor. The meeting is tentatively set for the Civic Center, 3510 Grandview St.

To learn more, call the state Department of Transportation at 1-877-762-7769 or visit www.wsdot.wa.gov. What happened

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee made four recommendations Saturday regarding bridge tolls:

 • No reduced tolls for seniors, students or frequent users. Committee members agreed those groups would be difficult to identify, and favoring them wouldn’t be fair to other groups.

 • No variable or time-of-day tolls should be permitted until the new bridge is finished and the existing bridge is renovated.

 • A transponder account will require a minimum deposit of $30 to be started.

 • No consideration should be given to retiring the bridge’s debt early. Instead, committee members want the revenue focus to be on keeping tolls down.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647