Agency plan would up toll over Narrows

The Washington Transportation Commission formally proposed Tuesday to increase toll rates on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge 25 cents during each of the next two summers.

But that’s not the end of it. State lawmakers still must decide whether to approve the new toll rates or grant authority to the commission to do so to comply with an initiative that voters passed in November.

Two years ago, legislators restored that unilateral power to the Transportation Commission. But on Tuesday, two senators — one a Republican, one a Democrat — said it’s no sure thing that lawmakers will give that authority away again this year.

If the new tolls are authorized, cash, electronic and pay-by-mail toll rates, respectively, would increase to $4.25, $5.25 and $6.25 starting July 1, and $4.50, $5.50 and $6.50 beginning July 1, 2014.

The proposal means tollpayers face the prospect of toll rate increases for three consecutive summers. Last July, electronic tolls went up $1.25, and cash tolls increased $1.

Commissioners favored a two-step increase because it avoids severe hikes on tollpayers all at once and provides more certainty moving forward.

They said they understand toll rate increases are a financial hardship for peninsula commuters, but they also have an obligation to ensure bondholders are repaid and the state’s creditworthiness is preserved.

“This is a difficult financing scheme for the tollpayers,” said commission Chairman Dan O’Neal of Mason County. “I think we all sympathize with the people who cross the bridge a lot.”

Two state senators made clear their opinions to the commission that any legislative action will not be made lightly, if at all, in the wake of voter approval in November of Initiative 1185.

The initiative, sponsored by Tim Eyman, requires the elected Legislature, rather than appointed officials, to have the final say on all fees, including tolls.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said it would be “very difficult, if not impossible” for lawmakers to approve the new toll rates and that empowering the commission to make the decision would be perceived by the people as a “circumventing of their will.”

Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, said there must be greater accountability before lawmakers would consider restoring toll-setting authority to the commission. He urged the commission to do its part to rein in costs to hold down tolls on the Narrows Bridge.

“The message is clear from the people: They do not want taxes or tolls and other fees to be the default solution to funding issues,” he said.

If lawmakers do nothing, the current toll rates would stand and the state would be forced to dip into the highway fund if toll revenue isn’t enough to pay the bills on the Narrows Bridge, said Reema Griffith, the commission’s executive director.

The state financed the bridge’s construction with the expectation that traffic growth and scheduled toll rate hikes would collect enough money to operate and maintain the eastbound span and make debt payments, which are set to increase significantly in the coming years. Cash tolls were originally projected to increase $1 every three years to a maximum $6 by 2016.

But the revenue windfall hasn’t arrived as traffic has remained flat, which officials have attributed to the Great Recession and the lingering weak economy. That is forcing officials to deviate from the original financial plan.

Tollpayers faced the prospect of a steeper rate hike this year — a citizens advisory committee studied a 40-cent increase — but the commission allowed some flexibility in how it accounts for an emergency cushion it would draw upon in the event of an extended bridge closure.