Special Reports

This toll forum draws docile group

The Department of Transportation had enough Starbucks coffee on hand for 100 people, but only 13 showed up at a Narrows Bridge toll workshop in Tacoma on Monday night.

The meeting at Tacoma Alliance Church was designed to collect citizen ideas about how the $3 toll should be regulated once the new bridge opens in 2007 – details such as who if anyone should qualify for reduced rates, how people who drive across without paying should be punished, and how people should be encouraged to use the electronic transponders allowing them to bypass toll booths.

In Gig Harbor and Port Orchard, similar workshops over the past week and a half each drew about 80 people, many of them highly emotional, who wanted to debate the underlying issue of whether tolls should be charged at all.

But in Tacoma, the few people who showed up were generally soft-spoken and content to stick to the DOT’s agenda.

The new $849 million bridge project will be paid for by tolls, the first time tolls have been charged to Western Washington drivers in 20 years.

Most Tacoma attendees agreed that transponders should initially be provided free, to encourage people to use them. But after hearing that each of the credit-card sized devices will cost the state $10 and will come out of the bridge pay-back budget, most agreed that after an initial startup, users should be charged for them.

Should frequent users get a discount? Linda Smith of University Place, who runs a gymnastics school in Gig Harbor and sometimes makes multiple trips across the Narrows a day, said yes. “I think we should get a reduced rate,” she said.

Others said no way, particularly after Rick Singer, the business manager for the bridge project, noted, “For every free trip and every incentive, that means it will take that much longer to pay off the bridge.”

How should people who don’t have transponders be allowed to pay at the toll booths? Cash, yes, and credit cards if there are machines so drivers can just pay with a simple swipe, but personal checks?

“I think there would be a through-put issue if you had people stopping to write checks,” said DeeAnn Bacon, a DOT financial analyst. “You know how it is at the grocery store.”

Once tolling begins, the DOT expects more than $100,000 will be collected daily, more than $45 million every year.

The state expects to increase the toll to $4 in 2010, $5 in 2013 and $6 by 2016. The toll will be removed once the cost of the bridge is paid.

While there appears to be no going back on the tolling decision, Singer told attendees, the details will be worked out over the next several months, in part by a citizens’ advisory committee which will soon be chosen.

Rob Carson:253-597-8693