Transportation Commission makes final pitch for photo-tolling on Narrows Bridge

State Transportation Commission staffer Craig Stone explains how photo-tolling will work on the Narrows Bridge.   - Jeff Rhodes/Staff Photo
State Transportation Commission staffer Craig Stone explains how photo-tolling will work on the Narrows Bridge.
— image credit: Jeff Rhodes/Staff Photo

The Washington State Transportation Commission on Wednesday night complied with state law requiring it to hold another public meeting in Gig Harbor on the question of implementing a photo-tolling system on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

But considering the seven-member panel had already stated its desire to do so and had even recommended a $5.50 toll per round trip, the 70-minute gathering at the Gig Harbor City Hall felt more like an afterthought than an opportunity to weigh public input.

Only two of the 20 or so attendees made a statement to the commissioners, and two-thirds of the meeting consisted of Craig Stone, the Commission’s Toll Division director, presenting a slide show on how the photo-tolling program would work and how the $5.50 rate was determined — information the commissioners presumably already had before embracing the concept.

According to Stone, the $5.50 is based on the current $4 toll being charged for vehicles using a Good to Go Transponder on their windshields, plus $1.50 for administrative costs.

The additional $1.50 was calculated, he said, by averaging the low and high estimates for license plate look-up costs, mailing costs and unbillable transactions.

“We believe it’s an accurate number,” he said. “We believe we can do the job for that amount.”

Not everyone agreed, however.

Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss came to the meeting equipped with an eight-page analysis suggesting $1.50 is likely far less than it will actually take to run the program.

Using the Department of Transportation’s own estimates, Boss noted that between the Narrows Bridge and the SR-520 Bridge in Seattle, which will also be using photo-tolling, around 23 million transactions per year will have to be processed.

“They have estimated that they will be able to handle those 23 million transactions with a staff of 22 people and a budget of $600,000 annually,” Boss noted. “That’s 63,000 toll transactions weekly, divided by five work days, which equates to 86,200 envelopes stuffed Monday through Friday by, let’s say, 16 worker bees, or about 5,500 envelopes stuffed each and every day by those 16 workers.

“That’s 700 envelopes an hour, or 12 envelopes stuffed every minute of every day by each person,” he said. “Yeah, right.”

For each of the millions of transactions, Boss said, the state will have to take a picture of the license plate of a speeding car, cross-reference that number with a database, match the plate number with a name and address, print a photo of the license plate, calculate and print an invoice, put all the paperwork in an envelope, stamp the envelope and mail the whole package out.

Then, too, there is the cost of collecting and adjudicating the estimated 10 percent of cases in which the driver doesn’t willingly write a check when the bill shows up in his or her mailbox.

“The point is, there’s no way you can administer this program for anything like $1.50, and the state knows it,” Boss said. “All they care about is getting it up and running here so they can use it on the SR-520 Bridge because there’s nothing being done there now, so whatever it costs they’ll still make money.

“The Commission didn’t do the necessary work to figure out how much this will actually cost because they want they’d rather err on the low side just to get the camel’s nose under the tent,” he said. “They can always come back later and say their projections were too conservative and they need to generate more revenue by raising the tolls for everyone, including transponder users. And that’s exactly what will happen once this system is adopted.”

The Transportation Commission is planning one final public meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Gig Harbor City Hall on Jan. 25, and is expected to formally take action on the photo-tolling measure the following day.

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