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Toll increase slated for July 1

The group in charge of setting toll rates for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge has preliminarily approved a toll increase that will begin in July.

The Washington State Transportation Commission will vote to finalize a toll rate increase on May 21 for tolls that will go into affect on July 1.

The commission will hold two public meetings, including one at Port Orchard City Hall on April 18, before finalizing the rate.

If the preliminary increase is approved, a trip eastbound over the TNB will cost $4 for drivers with Good to Go accounts, $5 for cash tolls and $7 for pay by mail. The increase is $1 to $1.50 higher than current rates.

Dan O’Neal, one of seven State transportation commissioners, told the Independent the toll needed to go up in order to keep pace with escalating debt service payments as the usage drops in relation to economic factors.

“We know the costs will be tough,” O’Neal said. “It’s our job to make sure we repay the bonds.”

The TNB Citizens Advisory Committee, a nine-member advisory board that recommends toll rates to the commission, suggested a 90-cent increase earlier this month.

But the commission deemed the rate recommendation as too low, in part because the commission shoulders the responsibility to hedge on the conservative side when it comes to rate projections, said Transportation Commissioner Anne Haley.

“There is a difference in projections and assumptions being used,” Haley said. “We were much more conservative.”

Haley also said it was the Transportation Commission’s job to anticipate debt and toll rates across the entire state in the years to come and where the CAC can focus on the upcoming fiscal year for the TNB.

“We look not just in a context of a single year,” she said. “We look at the years ahead.”

In setting the rate, the commission had to contend with maintaining a sufficient minimum reserve balance of 12.5 percent of the year’s debt service obligations — about $4.4 million.

Toll rates are also affected by declining traffic flowing across the eastbound span of the bridge; something that could continue to decline as rates increase.

“We don’t know what the breaking point is,” O’Neil said of the top toll fees people will contend with before giving up and seeking alternate routes.

According to the Transportation Commission, toll rates for the $735 million bridge were originally projected in 2003 to be around $4 for 2012.

When repaid, the bridge will cost $1.4 billion.

But with increased debt service obligations on the horizon for 2014, this won’t be the last time drivers will have to pay more to cross.

“There is more to be paid on the debt in 2014,” Haley said. “Tolls will go up.”

 

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