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No amount recommended yet for toll increase

Residents told an advisory committee about the impacts higher tolls would have on them. - Brett Cihon
Residents told an advisory committee about the impacts higher tolls would have on them.
— image credit: Brett Cihon

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee asked tough questions of Washington State Department of Transportation’s Toll Division Director Craig Stone at Wednesday evening’s toll-rate discussion.

The nine-member advisory group fielded some tough questions, too.

Peninsula residents packed the Gig Harbor Civic Center to hear the CAC hash out the particulars of a projected budget shortfall that is expected to spur a $1-$2 toll increase on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge starting July 1.

The CAC took two hours to ask Stone and his team a bevy of esoteric financial particulars related to tolling, ranging from pay-by-mail impacts to why $31,000 in toll money should go to state coffers after paying sales tax on bridge bond insurance.

Stone and his team did their best to answer the questions, many of which came from a packet of 31 questions previously compiled by the CAC.

The Wednesday meeting was in advance of a March 20 deadline for the CAC to make a recommendation on toll rates to the Washington State Transportation Commission.

Though the CAC was careful to point out that no recommendation has yet been made, a toll increase appeared necessary to maintain a mandatory reserve fund of 12.5 percent of annual debt services for the bridge.

But the particulars of each dollar spent by area residents on the tolls was important, CAC member Jim Pasin said.

“Three or 4 million dollars (in costs) represents 30-40 cents in additional tolls for people on this peninsula,” he said.

Previously searched avenues by the CAC to keep tolls down appeared to come up dry. A request to eliminate the required reserve fund did not seem possible because restructuring payment on bonds used to purchase the bridge was not an option, said Washington State Transportation Com-mission Director Reema Griffith.

A bill pushed by Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, for an exemption on the nearly $50 million in sales tax owed on the bridge is still under consideration. However its passing, Stone said, won’t necessarily have a drastic impact on the budget shortfall.

After the CAC finished its questions for the Stone and his team, area residents were encouraged to make comments to the board.

Peninsula resident Megan Lawrence said for low-income residents seeking cheap health services, an increase in tolls cuts off a vital lifeline.

“Medical care for low-income is not available out here,” she said. “We just don’t have it.”

Janet Gonzalez, resident of Gig Harbor, said she would not only have to pay more for her daily commute to Renton, but also for a caretaker to come over from Tacoma to look after her son.

“I use the bridge five days a week,” she said. “What about care providers coming across the bridge?”

One resident from Gig Harbor called on the CAC to be diligent.

“I think tolls can be far below (the projected amount),” he said. “This group has a responsibility to influence the Department of Transportation to keep the tolls as low as possible.”

Another meeting will be held at the Gig Harbor Civic Center on Feb. 22 to further discuss raising the tolls. CAC member Alan Weaver said Wednesday night’s meeting was just one in a series aimed at helping the committee make a recommendation.

But regardless of the recommendation they make, he said, the Washington State Transportation Commission has the final say.

“We’re not the ones making the ultimate decision,” he said.

 

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