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Decision on tolls a tough issue for advisory group

Tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge will likely increase by a $1 or more early this summer.

They might go up again in November, too.

Amy Igloi, a member of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizens Advisory Committee, worries that once tolls are raised, fewer drivers will cross the bridge, making it harder to raise revenue.

“My concern is we raise the tolls and nobody uses the bridge,” said Igloi, owner of the downtown Port Orchard restaurant Amy’s on the Bay. “And then we have to raise tolls again. It’s a tricky decision.”

Her concern stems from a CAC meeting Jan. 11 when Craig Stone, Washington State Department of Transportation Toll Division Director, outlined a revenue shortage the bridge faced for the 2013 fiscal year. Stone recommends a toll increase on June 1 of $1.75 across the board to maintain a state-required reserve fund of 12.5 percent of annual bridge expenditures and debt service.

Igloi said a number of bridge users stood up at the meeting to voice their opinion, and their outright inability, to pay increased tolls.

“People got up and said they’ve had their pay cut, or they haven’t gotten a raise, and they say they just couldn’t pay a higher toll,” she said. “Less people will use the bridge.”

In an informal poll conducted on the Port Orchard Independent’s website, 80 percent of responders said they would use the TNB less often if tolls went up $1 or more.

Igloi has received a number of emails and phone calls in response to the Jan. 11 meeting, she said, mostly concerning the issue of deferred sales tax on the bridge construction. December 2012 marks when repayment is to begin of about $50 million in sales tax over the next 10 years, at a rate of about $5.7 million a year.

The idea that sales tax must be paid on a state project upsets a number of people, Igloi said.

“People are kind of blown away that the state charges itself sales tax,” she said. “I’ve been getting all sorts of calls about it.”

A bill sponsored by 26th District Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, seeks a sales tax exemption for the bridge. But Igloi said even if the bill passes and the bridge is exempted from sales tax, that would only lower the needed toll increase by 40 cents. This would ease the burden of the toll, but doesn’t solve all the budgeting problems of the bridge.

“A rate increase would probably still be needed,” she said.

The next time the CAC meets will be at a WSDOT-sponsored open house on Feb. 8 at the Gig Harbor Civic Center. A public hearing will follow the open house, and the CAC will get more presentations from WSDOT.

Though it looks like a toll increase on June 1 is imminent, Igloi said the CAC wants to see more information regarding pay-by-mail tolling before they make a final recommendation to the Washington State Transportation Commission on March 20. Igloi said she knows how difficult it will be for people if the tolls are raised, but even so, hopes it doesn’t affect traffic on the bridge so much that another increase is necessary.

Igloi, who was appointed to the CAC by the governor in 2010, sometimes feels like her job is futile in a time of tight budgets and stressed families.

“Sometimes I feel like I was appointed to a sinking ship,” she said. “I have great concerns about raising the toll even though all the data we’re seeing says it must be so.”

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