Long-term plan to freeze Narrows Bridge tolls is a big win

Sunrise greets Tacoma Narrows Bridge commuters driving on the newer eastbound span toward Tacoma (right) as well as those on the old bridge heading toward the Peninsula.
Sunrise greets Tacoma Narrows Bridge commuters driving on the newer eastbound span toward Tacoma (right) as well as those on the old bridge heading toward the Peninsula. News Tribune file photo, 2013

Galloping Gertie, as South Sound natives know, was the nickname of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge that buckled and collapsed in high winds four months after she opened in 1940. The only casualty was a cocker spaniel, but folks on or near Gertie reported a wild roller coaster ride.

For the past decade, modern-day Narrows Bridge users have been stuck on another kind of roller coaster, to borrow a metaphor from state Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma. The inequitable financing of the new eastbound bridge, and the unpredictable toll setting since the span opened in 2007, have left commuters holding on with white knuckles.

Legislators this year, led by the Pierce County delegation, are finally bringing the topsy-turvy ride to an end in bipartisan fashion. Bravo to them for agreeing to an orderly, affordable and far-sighted solution to stabilize bridge financing while its sharply escalating debt is retired over the next few decades.

House Bill 2990 would trigger a staggered series of state transportation loans to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge account between 2019 and 2031, totaling approximately $85 million. Those loans, combined with a 25-cent toll increase sometime after 2022, would be sufficient to meet bond payments.

Rest assured this isn’t a freebie for bridge users; the state would be made whole through ongoing toll collections after bridge construction debt and deferred sales taxes are fully repaid over the next 13 years.

Meanwhile, strong residential and commercial growth on the Peninsula bodes well for increased bridge crossings and toll collections. That means smaller loans will be needed to plug the gap.

The bill, approved by the Senate Wednesday, sailed through both chambers with a total of 144 yes votes and 2 no votes. We trust Gov. Jay Inslee will join the parade and sign it.

Fey, the bill’s chief House sponsor, told us in an interview that the loan package “provides more certainty, and solves a problem that the state created when it set up the debt service the way it did.

“It stops it from being a roller coaster.”

Financing to build the $850 millon suspension bridge was perversely structured to be easy to pay with toll revenues early on and increasingly difficult to pay in later years. That flies in the face of rational debt service, in which payments are held fairly flat over time.

When the bridge opened in July 2007, tolls started at $1.75 per standard eastbound crossing for Good to Go customers, which in hindsight was too low. Then they crept up through an erratic annual toll-setting process blown about by recession economics and unreliable traffic estimates. For the last two years, tolls have held steady at $5 ($6 for tollbooth and $7 for pay-by-mail customers), thanks to temporary fund transfers by the Legislature.

But a recent DOT study indicated they might have to rise up to $8 or more to meet ballooning debt obligations.

That’s an exorbitant sum, devastating for many budgets. Even if you don’t have sympathy for the gainfully employed Gig Harbor commuter, think about the middle-class family making multiple bridge trips each day. Or the blue-collar Tacoma business with customers on the west side of the span. Or fixed-income seniors taking scenic drives to the Peninsula. Or taxpayer-funded public safety vehicles crossing in non-emergency situations.

HB 2990 is a sensible, overdue plan for bread-and-butter tollpayer relief supported by every Pierce County legislator but Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place.

Though it won’t draw statewide headlines, mark it down as a true local triumph of the 2018 Legislature.