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Longtime bridge critic plans suit to stop photo-tolling
Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss hopes he’s on the verge of waging the same sort of legal battle against the photo-tolling system planned for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge as the one that held up construction of the span for years.
Boss, an outspoken critic of adding a bridge, fought the Washington State Department of Transportation tooth and nail in a vain effort to prevent it being built — ultimately adding millions to the cost of the project, his opponents insist.
He’s hoping for a better outcome this time around, though.
“I’m very close to filing a lawsuit that seeks to halt the collection of tolls statewide,” Boss said. “But I can’t do that until I’ve exhausted all of my administrative options.”
Legally, he explained, a lawsuit is the last avenue and can’t be filed until the plaintiff has tried everything else.
In this case, Boss is waiting for the governor to deny his final petition. When she does, he’s free to seek relief in the courts.
At issue is Boss’s belief that the state violated its own laws last February when the Department of Transportation adopted a statewide tolling plan.
“First of all, the plan can’t be approved without a public hearing,” Boss said. “I follow this stuff very closely and I never heard anything about any meeting, so I asked them and they said they held one in downtown Seattle.
“I didn’t believe it,” he said, “so I made a public records request for a transcript of the meeting, and it turns out the meeting convened at 7:07 p.m. and adjourned a minute later with no public comments because not one member of the public attended. That gives you some indication of how well-publicized the hearing was.”
More to the point, Boss is convinced WSDOT neglected to do its due diligence when it set the photo toll rate at $5.50 per round trip over the Narrows Bridge.
With photo-tolling, which was originally scheduled to start this spring, drivers who don’t want to stop at a toll booth and don’t have a Good to Go transponder on their windshield enabling them to pay the toll electronically would have the option of paying later by mail.
As they cross the bridge, a high-speed camera will take a photo of their car’s license plate.
The number will then be cross-referenced with Department of Motor Vehicle records and the registered owner will be sent a bill.
The Department of Trans-portation calculated a rate of $5.50 for these transactions by taking the normal $4 charged for tollbooth users and adding on $1.50 for administrative costs.
The $1.50 figure was derived by looking at similar programs elsewhere in the country and averaging their estimated administrative costs.
Boss, however, has long believed it will cost far more than $1.50 per transaction to pay for photo-tolling.
“You don’t have to look any further than the (State Route) 520 Bridge,” he said. “The same company (Texas-based Electronic Transaction Consultants) that will operate the photo-tolling system on the Narrows Bridge is also responsible for the 520 Bridge.
“ETC originally said they could process the transactions with 20 people,” Boss said. “At last count, it takes closer to 200 people to keep track of the 60,000 cars a day that cross that bridge without a transponder. And it’ll be the same thing here.”
By state law, the administrative costs must be paid first, before any of the toll money can be used to pay off the bridge construction debt.
So if Boss is right and it takes more than $1.50 per transaction to pay for photo tolling, the only option would be to raise the overall toll.
“No one here wanted photo-tolling in the first place,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense on the Narrows Bridge, and it would be a travesty if we wound up seeing our tolls go up to pay for a program we don’t need and didn’t ask for.”
The trick, Boss said, will be to get the lawsuit filed before photo-tolling goes into effect on the 520 Bridge.
“Back when we were suing the state over building the Narrows Bridge,” he recalled, “by the time we finally got in front of a judge they had already started pouring concrete. The judge said we had some sound arguments, but ultimately he couldn’t stop construction of the bridge once work was already under way.
“We want to make sure that doesn’t happen this time,” Boss said. “We want the photo-tolling program stopped before it starts.”
Boss believes his efforts have already kept photo-tolling from being implemented on the 520 Bridge, and he wants to have the same impact on the Narrows Bridge.
“Photo-tolling can’t be started until the Secretary of Transportation can certify that the program operates flawlessly,” Boss said. “Given the number of problems we’ve already pointed out, she can’t sign off on it just yet. And once we file the lawsuit, there will be even more things to be addressed.
“With any luck,” he said, “the process could take months or years to be cleared up.”