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Public keeps quiet at toll meeting

At a meeting held Tuesday night to collect comments from the public about how their Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls should be spent, there was a decided lack of at least one thing — public comment.

Only two citizens addressed the Washington State Transportation Commission(WSTC) members gathered in Gig Harbor to hear firsthand where tollpayers wanted their money to go, leading one commissioner to joke that the board will be accused of “filibustering them off.”

But even if few bridge crossers wanted to spend their dinner hours sharing comments in person, enough delivered them beforehand via email, phone or otherwise that the officials felt they already knew at least a few of the public’s main concerns regarding toll money.

“A lot of people, including myself, were somewhat concerned about how much of the toll money goes to pay down the bridge and how much goes to other things,” said Commissioner Bob Distler, referring to recent public complaints, which commission executive director Reema Griffith said seemed to focus on reports that toll money was being used to park both tow trucks and Washington State Patrol troopers on the bridge.

“As of now, the tow truck program has been suspended,” said Ted Trepanier, co-director of maintenance and operations for the bridge, explaining that when it first opened, the WSDOT stationed two tow trucks near the span from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m.

However, by late August the number of trucks was reduced to one, and by Oct. 5 the service was suspended completely.

Trepanier did not credit the program’s suspension to public response, but rather to the WSDOT determining that the anticipated need did not materialize.

“The reason for building the second bridge was to alleviate congestion for commuters, and the last thing we wanted was to have them waiting a long time for an incident to clear,” Trepanier said, explaining that it can take up to 30 extra minutes for an off-site tow truck to respond. “However, once the bridge opened, things went very well, and that program was ramped down and is currently being evaluated.”

So far, the WSDOT reported it spent $87,000 to station trucks on-site for the past 12 weeks, after originally budgeting nearly $398,000 for the service’s first year.

“Hopefully, we’ve shown that we’re adaptable to the needs of bridge users and we are open to discussion,” Trepanier said, adding that his agency is still paying for additional trooper patrols on the new bridge.

“We thought there would be an advantage to having WSP on location, given that there is lots of cash changing hands,” and such a trooper presence would make drivers more inclined to obey traffic laws and pay tolls, he said.

Sen. Derek Kilmer, (D-Gig Harbor), then said his constituents expressed concern that expenses the state had prior to the bridge opening — such as WSP patrols and vehicles — were now being paid for with tolls.

Trepanier answered that concern by stressing that a trooper presence near the toll plaza was an “added service” provided specifically for the new bridge, and not one that was previously provided and funded by the state.

Kilmer said it was just such additional expenses that had “raised a lot of hackles” in his district because “our expectation was that we were paying for a bridge — and some of us didn’t even want to pay for that.”

Kilmer then promised the audience that the legislators would be keeping “an eye on the toll revenue expenditures to make sure they are fair and appropriate.”

Before the next session begins in January, Griffith said the WSTC will prepare recommendations to both the legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire regarding current toll revenue expenditures.

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