Special Reports

Panel advises discount toll for Narrows

People who buy into the state’s electronic toll collection system for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge will get a big break on tolls for the first year if recommendations of a citizens’ advisory panel are followed.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee decided Wednesday to recommend a $3 toll for people who drive through the toll booths and pay cash and $1.75 for drivers who use transponders that automatically deduct payments from prepaid accounts.

At those rates, the committee’s chairman, Bob Ryan of Tacoma, said projections indicate that the state would be able to meet its repayment obligations even if the Legislature does not come up with $10 million to pay down the tolls, as requested by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

“This gets us there even if the Legislature doesn’t help us,” Ryan said.

The citizens’ committee’s recommendations are not the final word. They will be sent to the Washington Transportation Commission, which makes the final decision.

One of nine members of the public who showed up at Wednesday’s meeting criticized the committee’s decision not to predicate the discounts on getting the $10 million from the Legislature.

“You just gave it away,” said Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss, an outspoken critic of paying for the bridge with tolls.

The State Department of Transportation is heavily marketing the transponders because it fears the morning crunch of Tacoma-bound commuters will overwhelm Gig Harbor approaches to the new bridge.

The area of greatest concern is “the weave,” the point where commuters entering Highway 16 at the 36th Street on-ramp in Gig Harbor will meet commuters from farther out on the Peninsula as they prepare to enter the toll plaza.

To make the system work smoothly, DOT traffic engineers say, at least 60 percent of people in the morning rush need to have transponders on their windshields so they can cruise straight onto the bridge. Otherwise, Highway 16 traffic will grind to a halt at the weave as drivers struggle to enter the tollbooth lanes.

Gregoire put $10 million in her 2007-09 budget to reduce tolls from $3 to $1.50 for drivers who use transponders during the first year the bridge is open.

Some members of the Legislature wonder if the incentive is necessary, and if that is the best way to spend scarce transportation dollars.

Senate Transportation Committee chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, for example, said last month, “The incentive for getting a transponder is sitting in line to pay a toll while the people with transponders buzz by.”

Among other recommendations, the committee recommended these:

 • Toll rates should be based on a charge per axle. An additional charge of $1.50 per axle should start as soon as the bridge opens rather than waiting six months as had previously been discussed.

 • No discounts should be granted to car pools; transit buses; city, county or state vehicles;or emergency vehicles except where otherwise expressly provided by law.

 • Opening an electronic payment account should require an advance deposit of at least $30.

 • To the extent practicable, all fines imposed for toll violations should be returned to the Narrows Bridge toll account to help pay off the bridge.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693