Don’t allow more free trips across Tacoma Narrows Bridge

The Tacoma Narrows Bridges seen from the Gig Harbor side looking east.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridges seen from the Gig Harbor side looking east. The News Tribune

The Washington Transportation Commission is proposing to add new costs to toll payers on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but the governor-appointed Citizens Advisory Committee, on which I serve, urges rejection of the proposal.

Unlike other toll facilities, all construction and operating costs for the Narrows bridges are borne by the users through tolls.

More recent state projects, including state Route 520 and the Alaska Way tunnel project in Seattle, enjoy about 30 percent state funding to minimize tolling and more equitably distribute costs.

Additionally, the new eastbound Narrows bridge was financed using bonds with a repayment schedule that increases nearly every year through 2030. These debt payments are the major reason for increasing tolls on the bridge.

In recognition of the challenges created by the debt structure and increasing tolls, the Legislature formed a task force with state and local officials in 2017 to examine options for providing toll payer relief.

In response to the task force’s recommendations, the Legislature this year authorized loans from the state to stabilize tolls through 2030. Under that plan, tolls will increase by 25 cents in two years, then remain at that level until all bonds are repaid.

While the Legislature’s action will provide welcome relief and certainty, it did not change who pays for the costs for the bridge. It simply changes when those costs will be repaid, extending the date by a few years.

But the Transportation Commission is now considering adding to toll payers’ obligations by allowing transit, vanpools, rideshare, private buses, school buses and tow trucks to be exempt from tolls. Exemptions already exist for emergency and maintenance vehicles.

It will be taking up this issue at its July meeting.

While the goals for incentivizing non-single-occupancy vehicles seem laudable, the proposed exemptions make no sense on the Narrows Bridge.

Exempting these vehicles from tolling simply transfers debt and operating costs to toll payers. The Commission estimates revenues would be reduced by more than $225,000 per year, or more than $2 million over the remaining life of bond repayments.

The lost revenue would be added to the debt authorized by Legislature, and must be repaid by toll payers after 2030. Using the Commission’s analysis, it will require more than 380,000 trips by toll payers to pay for these new exemptions.

While use of mass transit has a public benefit, the users also benefit from the Narrows bridges. The new bridge is an entirely “user-funded” facility; accordingly, it is appropriate that all users share in the costs.

The Citizens Advisory Committee has consistently rejected proposals to add new exemptions to tolling because they shift the costs to other toll payers.

The committee reviewed the Transportation Commission’s recommendations, and also considered the issues raised by transit proponents, and we urge rejection of the new exemptions.

Bruce Beckett of Gig Harbor is chairman of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizens Advisory Committee.