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Tolls likely going up on Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Drivers could soon be paying more to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Craig Stone, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Toll Division Director, said a $1 to $2 across-the-board toll increase could go into affect as early July 1.

The increase, he said, is necessary to maintain a reserve fund of 12.5 percent of annual debt services and expenditures for the bridge, as required by the Washington State Transportation Commission. Stagnant tolling revenue and increased expenses mean the TNB’s reserve fund balance would dip below the minimum amount required for 2012 if a rate increase is not adopted.

Without a toll increase, WSDOT projects 2012 toll revenue of $46.24 million, with projected operating expenses and debt obligations at $50.3 million. The reserve fund balance at the end of the year would fall to $3.5 million, short of the $6.28 million needed to meet the 12.5 percent requirement.

“We have to be sure we make our debt obligations,” Stone said.

Currently, drivers who pay the toll in cash spend $4, while Good to Go! pass holders pay $2.75. A recently added option of photo tolling generates a bill for $5.50 mailed to drivers without Good to Go! passes who don’t pay at the toll booths.

An increase would be the first since tolls were raised $1 in 2008.

Stone outlined budget scenarios to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee at its meeting Wednesday in Gig Harbor. The nine-member, governor-appointed CAC is slated to make a recommendation on tolls to the Washington State Transportation Commission on March 20.

Amy Igloi, owner of Amy’s on the Bay restaurant in Port Orchard, was appointed to the advisory committee for 2012. She said $25 million more than last year must be collected for the fiscal year 2013 to make up for stagnant revenue and increased debt. According to the CAC, this would require a $1.75 increase if the annual number of eastbound trips — about 14.5 million — remains the same.

Igloi said she uses the bridge about four times a week and knows how difficult a rate increase can be. She said the CAC, whose recommendation isn’t always accepted by the Transportation Commission, will need to recommend an increase.

“It sounds like we have no other option,” Igloi said. “We are going to try to keep it as minimal of a cost as possible, but it looks likes it’s going up across the board.”

The slow economy has impacted tolling revenues, Stone said, with fewer drivers using the bridge than expected. The state recently revised its estimate of the number of vehicles making round trips on the bridge from 16 million to 14 million.

“The traffic increases haven’t occurred,” Stone said. “We have flat traffic which means flat revenue.”

Compounding stagnant revenues, debt obligations for TNB will soon go up because payment for the sales tax on the bridge, which was deferred for the first five years after the bridge’s completion, is slated to begin in December 2012.

The $45 million owed in sales tax is a sticky subject for many who feel it’s wrong for toll payers to bear the burden of a tax that would go to state coffers.

“I’ve always thought it was strange that the state charges itself sales tax on its own construction projects,” said Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, in an email to the Port Orchard Independent. “But when projects aren’t funded by the state but, rather are funded almost entirely by tolls, it’s simply wrong for folks to have to a pay a toll to pay a tax.”

Kilmer said he’s tried for six years to pass legislation to deal with the sales tax on the construction of the bridge. In 2009, the Legislature passed a bill that would have given the bridge a sales tax exemption. However, the lieutenant governor ruled that the exemption language was “out of the scope and object of the bill.” When the bill was signed into law, it didn’t include the exemption.

Most recently, Kilmer introduced Senate Bill 6073 on Monday that again tries to get a sales tax exemption. Randy Boss, a Gig Harbor resident who is a  staunch opponent of bridge tolls, said eliminating the sales tax should be the number-one job for the legislators in the 26th District.

“I told (Larry) Seaquist (D-Tacoma) and Kilmer they should have one main goal for this year,” Boss said. “That’s to get rid of the sales tax increase.”

But until any legislation passes, the tax will need to be paid off over the next 10 years, Stone said.

And even if legislation passes, he said tolls might still need to go up in order to meet the minimum required fund balance. Since a decision in 2010 to forgo rate increases, maintenance and debt costs have been covered by reserve funds, he said.

“We’ve always known a rate increase would be needed here,” he said.

The Citizen Advisory Committee will hold a public hearing Feb. 8 with an open house by WSDOT beforehand. Citizens will be encouraged to voice their opinion before the committee presents its plan to the Transportation Commission.

Though raising tolls is never popular, Stone said an expected increase of $1-2 is still much lower at this time than was originally projected in the 2002.

“We’ve been able to keep rates lower than initially planned,” he said. “Now we are in a situation where a rate increase is needed.”

 

 

 

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