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Photo tolling scheme still has a few bugs, its critics say

On paper, the idea of doing away with tollbooths on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and collecting tolls electronically seems elegant in its simplicity.

The problem is, no one has yet figured out how to make the process work.

As spelled out in ESSB 6499, which the Washington State Legislature passed last spring, the system would use cameras to automatically record license plates on vehicles without a transponder and bill registered owners for the toll.

The state proposes a photo toll of $2.75, the same as for transponder users, plus a $1.50 fee for tracking the license plate and sending a bill, for a total of $4.25 — 25 cents more than the cost of paying at the toll booths.

Washington State Department of Transportation officials were scheduled to meet on Wednesday night with the bridge’s Citizens Advisory Committee to discuss the details.

The meeting had been postponed from the previous week because “the DOT didn’t know the answers to any of the advisory board’s questions,” 26th District Rep. Jan Angel (R-Port Orchard) said Tuesday night. “And guess what? They still don’t.”

“When a bill is passed, it says what needs to happen,” Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss explained. “But it doesn’t get into the logistics of how to do it. They figure that out during the Washington Administrative Code process — which can take months. And WAC hasn’t even started yet in this case.”

“(The DOT officials) had everything lined up based on the assumption we’d say yes,” said Amy Igloi-Matsuno, who represents South Kitsap on the advisory board. “My question is, what are they going to do if we say no?”

“Why are DOT and the Transportation Commission trying to get (the advisory board’s) approval before they have finished the WAC process?” Boss asked.

Among the other questions that need to be answered, he said, are:

• How big a staff will the DOT hire to do the backroom adminisitrative function to identify the 12,000 violations every day, and who will pay for that staff?

• Assuming even a fraction of the 12,000 violations every day must be handed over to a collections agency or settled in court, how much will that cost and how will it be handled?

• How will the process benefit Narrows tollpayers?

“The DOT said we will save money money because of the efficiencies created by having one entity collect a larger number of tolls,” Boss said. “But under any scenario, we will lose millions more than the $1.7 million touted as a benefit.”

“I took a lot of grief for opposing this bill from people who said I voted against keeping the tolls low,” Angel said. “The truth is, I don’t trust DOT and I can see where this idea could actually result in higher tolls, not lower.”

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