Special Reports

$3 toll versus $49 fine?

After the new Tacoma Narrows bridge opens, state officials expect an average of 1,800 people a day will drive across without paying the toll.

If that number doesn’t change over the first year and they all pay their fine, the state will take in nearly $6.7 million.

The estimates were provided by the Washington State Patrol, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Department of Transportation, which were asked to examine the effects of a proposed $49 fine on scofflaws who dodge the toll.

The amount of the fine is part of Senate Bill 5391, which the Senate approved Friday on a 38-9 vote. The bill goes to the House.

Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said he sponsored the bill because he wanted part of the fines to go toward paying off the new $849 million bridge. The $49 fine includes a $9 surcharge – equal to three times the amount of the expected $3 toll – that will be used for that purpose.

“Every dollar we can add to the tolling account will reduce the amount of money honest drivers must pay in tolls,” Kilmer said.

He expects the surcharge to raise between $15 million and $20 million. Still, that won’t be much compared to the total amount of money drivers will shell out in tolls. The cost of paying off the $800 million that was borrowed to build the bridge, including interest and ongoing maintenance and repairs, will cost toll payers more than $2 billion through 2030.

The new bridge is expected to open in August, with an initial round-trip toll of $3, rising to $6 in 10 years.

The State Patrol assumes that 10 percent of the drivers who cross the bridge in the express lane that first year won’t pay the toll. But they will be caught on camera and sent a $49 ticket. Those numbers are based on a study by transportation officials, who looked at the experiences of other states that imposed new tolls on highways or bridges.

But it’s hard to tell for sure.

“This is always an art, rather than a science,” said Julia Appel, who assembled the information for the court system.

Janet Matkin, DOT spokeswoman for the bridge project, said the number of scofflaws might not be so high. Her agency estimates 10 percent will skip tolls during the first month – not the whole year – as people get used to the toll system. The number should gradually drop to about 3 percent by the end of the first year, then stay at that level, she said.

Ticket fines would produce a one-year windfall for Pierce County District Court, which will get $40 of each fine for an estimated total of $5.5 million that first year. Failure to pay the toll will be treated like a parking ticket, not as a moving violation. It won’t go on a driver’s record.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said he voted against the bill because the use of cameras for traffic enforcement “has creeped into several bills this year, one for construction zones, one for tolling facilities. Where is it going to end?”

“They generate a lot of tickets that generate a lot of money,” he said of camera cops. “It’s like a slot machine on the highway for the local jurisdictions.”

Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, said cameras are used for safety.

“There’s always the possibility of people going through without paying their fair share,” he said. “This photo enforcement option can be done without stopping the flow of traffic. If you had cops there trying to catch everyone, it would shut down traffic.”

The use of cameras for traffic enforcement on the Narrows Bridge was approved by the Legislature several years ago, said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “This simply cleans up existing law,” she said.

The same fine – $40 plus three times the amount of the toll – also would apply to Highway 167 between Auburn and Renton, where the state is going to let solo drivers buy their way into the car-pool lanes if they pay a toll. That may start in 2009.

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436