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Bridge watchdog plots tactic to thwart statewide tolling

Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss, who for years has made it his business to dispute anything and everything that could raise toll rates on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, on Tuesday filed paperwork aimed to put a stick in the spokes of plans to toll roads all over Washington state.

In a 10-page petition to the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT), Boss is seeking to revoke or amend Washington Administrative Code 468-305, under which the Legislature last year ordered WSDOT to determine how much it will cost to operate its new photo-tolling system on the State Route 520 Bridge in Seattle and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge — as well as potentially every state road in Washington.

Not surprisingly, the Washington State Transportation Commission, meeting Tuesday morning, denied Boss’s petition. But he moved quickly to appeal to the Legislature’s Joint Administrative Rules Review Committee and the Governor’s Office — both of which will also deny it, he assumes.

“Those are just the preliminary steps I have to satisfy before I can file suit against the state to stop the whole concept of tolling existing roads,” Boss said. “It’s minutiae — the kind of technical crap no one should have to care about, except that it represents a huge unapproved tax the state intends to levy on 4.5 million drivers.”

At the heart of Boss’s latest effort is his belief that WSDOT either didn’t do a thorough job of researching how much photo-tolling will cost the state or is deliberately understating the cost.

Under photo-tolling, which was approved by the Legislature in 2010, vehicles crossing the bridge without a Good to Go transponder on their windshields would have their license plates photographed by a high-speed camera.

A computer would then access motor vehicle records and the registered owner would be sent a bill for the toll.

Earlier this year, the Washington State Transporta-tion Commission recommended a rate of $5.50 per photo-tolling transaction.

This was based on the current $4 paid at the manual tollbooth by drivers without transponders, plus a $1.50 administrative charge.

Boss believes $1.50 will prove far too low.

“Think about what we’re asking them to do for that amount,” he said. “By the state’s own estimate, at least 60,000 cars a day will cross the 520 Bridge alone without a Good to Go sticker.

“Even if you disregard the Narrows Bridge entirely, that’s still 60,000 cases every day where the vehicle’s license plate will have to be photographed and its owner’s name will have to be cross-referenced,” Boss said. “Then a bill will have to be generated and printed. Then you have to put it in an envelope, seal it and mail it out. The price of postage alone will take up a big chunk of that $1.50. Then you’ll need to create a huge state agency just to handle the collections process. There’s no way you can do all that for $1.50 per transaction.”

In addition, Boss said, no one has figured out how to adjudicate cases where the driver doesn’t pay willingly.

“We’re talking about literally tens of thousands of cases every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Boss said. “How are you going to bring all these people into court if they just decide they don’t feel like paying.”

As a Gig Harbor resident, Boss says he isn’t overly concerned how the 520 Bridge drivers will be impacted, but he has a consuming interest in Narrows Bridge tolls.

“Under state law, tolls must pay for administrative costs before they can be used for anything else,” Boss said. “What that means is that if the state eventually discovers $1.50 isn’t enough, it can just take a larger percentage of the existing toll to pay the administrative costs. Then we’ll have to raise rates again to do what the tolls are actually supposed to be doing — paying for the bridge.”

Boss said photo-tolling roads represents a huge source of untapped revenue for WSDOT, which explains why the agency has an interest in keeping its initial cost projections artificially low.

“If they told people up front how much it would cost, no one would go along with it,” he said. “But once it’s up and running, they can always come back and say, ‘Oops, this is gonna cost a little more than we thought.’ ”

Boss, who spearheaded the legal challenges that kept construction of the Narrows Bridge on hold for at least two years, says the only thing he can’t figure out is why there aren’t more people as willing to fight as he is.

“There are 4.5 million drivers in this state,” he said, “and DOT has the ability to slap a toll on every foot of road they drive. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why people aren’t storming Olympia with torches and pitchforks over this.”

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