Legislators send stern message to toll panel

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Sometimes, moral outrage can prevail.

Leaders of the state House and Senate transportation committees say they intend to hold Highway 99 tunnel tollpayers responsible for covering $200 million in construction debts — instead of a reduced $165 million figure that was written into this year’s budget.

The $200 million reappears in a May 16 letter to the state Office of Financial Management from House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island; and Senate Transportation Committee co-chairs Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Tracy Eide, D-Federal Way.

The letter attributes the $165 million budget figure to a “drafting error.”

In reality, the insistence on $200 million was a policy concession. Some senators have said they refuse to siphon another dollar from the rest of the state to Highway 99.

Clibborn said Friday that by sticking up for $200 million, the three lawmakers hope to send a signal to a Seattle-based toll advisory group, some of whose members favor getting rid of tolls entirely.

Setting toll rates is trickier than just figuring out how much money the state needs to bring in. The higher the tolls, the more drivers would divert to other routes and choke the central city.

Four years ago, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Department of Transportation assured lawmakers that tolling would support $400 million of the state’s $2.8 billion share to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

But then last year, lawmakers passed a budget showing only $200 million, based on conservative rules from the state treasurer and national bond brokers.

Fast forward to Feb. 6, when outgoing Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond proposed a more lenient target of $165 million, taking $35 million of federal stimulus money that’s left over from other highway jobs, she said.

That didn’t sit well with legislators in other areas of the state, who have road projects in their districts that could use $35 million.

Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, expressed “moral outrage” because his neighbors who drive the Tacoma Narrows bridges aren’t catching any price breaks on tolls.