OLYMPIA — An amendment to the state transportation budget bill that would have retained the Legislature’s authority to set toll rates on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and ferry fares was rejected by majority Democrats April 16 in the House of Representatives.
State Rep. Jan Angel (R-Port Orchard), who authored the amendment, said her measure may be the last chance for the Legislature to intervene and stop toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that are proposed to go into effect July 1.
In the past, the Washington State Transportation Committee, a seven-member board appointed by the governor, had the authority to set toll rates and ferry fares. However, in March, the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) ruled that the commission no longer had that authority because of provisions of Initiative 1185, which was approved by voters in November. OFM determined the initiative “requires some state agencies (including the state Transportation Commission) to obtain new legislative approval to impose or increase certain fees after Dec. 6, 2012, the effective date of the initiative.”
“I had proposed several options in the Legislature to keep our bridge toll rates down, but those bills did not advance,” noted Angel. “So when I learned of OFM’s ruling, it was like we were given a second chance to stop the proposed toll increases. But when the House transportation budget was released, it had a provision that would divest the Legislature from its toll-setting authority and return it back to the state Transportation Commission.”
The commission has proposed to increase toll rates by 25 cents, beginning July 1, which would bring the price to $4.25 for electronic (“Good to Go”) tolling, $5.25 at the toll booth, and $6.25 for pay-by-mail. The tolls would increase by another 25 cents on July 1, 2014.
“Many of our citizens are still struggling in this fragile economy. More than thirty-three thousand people in Pierce County are unemployed and looking for work,” noted Angel. “We cannot afford increased tolls and larger ferry fares!”
During debate Tuesday on the transportation budget measure, House Bill 1864, Angel introduced Amendment 386 that would have stricken the divestiture language from the bill and kept the Legislature in charge of toll- and ferry-fare setting authority.
“Without this amendment, this bill would remove the ability of legislators to represent their districts on all toll setting and all ferry-fare setting. We were elected to make these decisions. Let’s give that authority back to each one of the legislators here,” Angel said.
The amendment was rejected 53-42 on a near party-line vote, with a majority of Democrats, including those representing Pierce County and the Kitsap Peninsula voting no.
“I am very disappointed in the rejection of this amendment that would have brought accountability and responsibility back to our elected members who represent their citizens. This vote clears the way for toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and I can’t help my citizens to stop it. With all the e-mails I get every day that they can’t afford more toll increases, it is frustrating that I can’t help them, and so I’m very disappointed that this responsibility returns to an unelected commission,” said Angel.
The 26th District lawmaker said she was torn about how to vote on the final transportation budget bill.
“I would vote ‘no’ to send a message about the frustration of how the Legislature is relinquishing its responsibility on the toll-setting authority of the Narrows Bridge. However, how do I vote ‘no’ on a budget that will help my district with two ferries that would get my people in Kitsap County to work? I reluctantly voted ‘yes,’ but I am determined to do what it takes to prevent these toll increases from taking place,” added Angel.
The state Transportation Commission has set a final public hearing for May 20 in Gig Harbor on its proposed toll increases.
The $8.4 billion transportation budget package passed the House, 68-28. It now goes to the Senate for further consideration.