Increases in Narrows Bridge toll loom as traffic across it stays flat

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TACOMA — If there's any good news for drivers of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge watching toll hikes, it's that a 25-cent increase planned for this summer won't be more.

The bad news is that distracted state legislators working a short session this year are not likely to address proposals by Peninsula lawmakers to freeze or lower tolls.

And by 2016, tolls could be significantly higher to accommodate a roughly $8 million increase in bridge debt payments.

"Tolls are going to continue to go up; they can't help but continue to go up," said Alan Weaver, chairman of the bridge's citizen advisory committee tasked with recommending the toll rate.

The expected July 1 increase was set by the state Transportation Commission last May. The committee recommended two 25-cent increases, the first in 2013 and the second in 2014 to the commission.

The increase this summer means Good to Go users would pay $4.50, while tollbooth users would pay $5.50 and pay-by-mail rates would be $6.50.

Traffic across the bridge remained flat in 2013, a trend that state Department of Transportation officials expected. Department officials reviewed traffic and revenue figures from fiscal year 2013 with the advisory committee Wednesday night.

"Around the region (on all interstates and state roads) we're starting to see traffic rebound about 2 percent as we come out of the recession," said Craig Stone, director of the state's tolling division, by phone Thursday.

"But it does seem to be slower around the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and probably part of that is the toll on the bridge."

Revenue was down 4 percent, but that's largely because of a change in how the data are reviewed. The other reason for the decline is it's hard to predict when pay-by-mail payments will be received, Stone said. In some cases people who don't pay are issued civil penalties, which adds time to the collection process.

The bridge debt payment for fiscal year 2014 that ends June 30 is $54.3 million. It jumps to $61.4 million in fiscal year 2016 and to around $70 million in year 2017 before leveling off.

Building the eastbound bridge was financed by backloading the debt to keep tolls as low as possible when the span opened in 2007. It was assumed toll hikes and increased traffic fueled by population growth would generate enough revenue to make the escalating debt payments. The financing plan called for $1 toll increases every three years, with a maximum of $6 in 2016.

But with traffic remaining flat, there's a growing concern that toll revenue won't generate enough money to cover debt payments.

Last year the Legislature asked the state Transportation Commission to look at the repayment plan to see if the state would need to step in to help lessen the burden on daily bridge users.

Released last month and approved Wednesday by the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee, the study included payment scenarios that proposed increasing tolls above the $6 maximum.

“This gives them a sense of the fact that it would take a chunk of money to defray the rising bond repayment costs if the state ever had to bail out the bridge if tolls weren’t covering the payment,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of the state Transportation Commission.

Griffith was quick to point out the report relied heavily on assumptions about future traffic. Previous predictions overestimated the number of vehicles crossing the bridge, which is why Griffith said she’s hesitant to look beyond one or two years.

One bright spot for Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, was the determination that tolls likely won’t reach double digits.

That was one of Angel’s takeaways from the study, she said. The other is that the report showed the bridge is “clicking along just fine.”

Both Angel and Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, agreed that any talk about lowering Narrows tolls probably won’t gain traction in the 60-day legislative session that begins Monday. That’s especially true, considering other transportation problems facing the state — including state Route 520 bridge cost overruns and Bertha, the tunnel-boring machine stuck in Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project.

“I had a bill to cap tolls last year and it went nowhere,” Angel said. “I think we’re stuck for right now.”

One thing the Legislature might do this winter is take a first step toward removing tollbooths at the newer Narrows Bridge.

Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson has identified shutting down the booths as a possible efficiency for the state’s tolling program. The Transportation Commission would like money to study tollbooth removal included in the state’s supplemental budget.

If Legislators approve the study, the results would be presented during the 2015 legislative session, Stone said. If legislators then decide to get rid of tollbooths, the cost of that transition could be part of the 2015-17 budget.

Public meetings would be held before a decision is made.