$5.50 recommended for Narrows Bridge photo-toll

The Washington State Transportation Commission is recommending a toll of $5.50 for Narrows Bridge commuters who choose the photo-tolling option once it becomes available this spring.

That amount represents a compromise between the $4.25 sought by the state Department of Transportation and the $7 recommended by the bridge’s Citizen Advisory Committee last month.

“It’s not a great development, but I guess it’s not as bad as it could have been,” said Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss, who testified during the Transportation Commission meeting in Olympia on Dec. 15 at which the recommendation was announced.

By law, the commission must now hold public meetings to determine how commuters feel about the rate.

Those are scheduled for Jan. 19 and 25, both at 6:30 p.m. at the Gig Harbor City Hall.

“Outside of the fact they’re legally required to hold a meeting, I can’t imagine why they’d bother,” Boss said. “As far as DOT is concerned, they’ve already set the toll rate and they couldn’t care less what the public thinks.”

Photo-tolling, which involves high-speed cameras photographing each passing vehicle’s license plate and sending its registered owner a bill in the mail, was approved by the Washington State Legislature last spring and is scheduled for implementation after first of the year.

In November, the governor-appointed Citizen Advisory Committee met with executives from both the Department of Transportation and the state Transportation Commission and expressed firm opposition to the concept of photo-tolling in general.

“I want to make a very strong statement that we don’t want this system on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge,” committee member Jim Pasin said.

The committee then recommended a toll rate of $7 — low enough to be affordable but still high enough to discourage drivers from using it as a substitute for transponders or tollbooths.

“As things currently stand, drivers who go through the tollbooths and pay $4 subsidize those who have transponders and pay $2.75,” said 26th District State Rep. Jan Angel (R-Port Orchard). “We don’t necessarily want the photo-tolling price to be high, but if it isn’t, the state will lose revenue and we’ll have to raise the rate for everyone.”

Angel estimated 30 percent of those crossing the bridge now stop and pay the higher fee at the tollbooth.

Projections show the added administrative costs associated with the photo-tolling option, however, could mean a significant loss of revenue.

“We think the Tacoma Narrows Bridge will lose millions of dollars a year,” Angel said, “unless the photo-tolling rate is set high enough to pay for itself.”

The problem is, no one agrees what that amount should be.

The Citizen Advisory Committee calculated the rate at $7. The state Department of Transportation, at the Dec. 15 meeting, suggested $4.25 — only slightly more than the cost of driving through the tollbooth, with none of the inconvenience.

“DOT wants to implement photo-tolling statewide because that’s the only way it can pay for new projects,” Angel said. “That’s why they want the toll low — to encourage people to use it. It doesn’t matter to them whether that means raising the toll for transponder users, too. All they care about is having a uniform standard statewide.”

“What it comes down to is (Seattle’s State Route) 520 Bridge,” Boss said. “DOT can’t do that project without photo-tolling because there are 120,000 cars a day crossing that bridge, and if everyone who didn’t have a transponder stopped at a tollbooth, it would look like the New Jersey Turnpike.”

Traffic isn’t nearly as heavy on the Narrows Bridge, though, and photo-tolling critics wonder why both structures have to be operated under identical rules.

“As far as we’re concerned,” Boss said, “we have a system here that works just fine now. Why screw around with it?”

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