Bridge tolls will be for everyone -- almost

The price to cross the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge when it opens next month has officially been set -- $3 for those paying cash, $1.75 for those paying electronically with a transponder.

After a final public hearing Tuesday, the Washington State Transportation Commission set the prices and decided who exactly would have to pay them when cars head across the bridge in about five weeks, said Executive Director Reema Griffith.

And while just a handful of people testified this week, Griffith said many more spoke at the previous meeting May 22, most of them addressing a possible toll exemption for emergency vehicles the commission was considering.

Speaking in favor of such an exemption were officers serving near the bridge from the Pierce County Sheriff's Office and the Gig Harbor Police Department. Speaking against the exemption -- with what Griffith described as surprising conviction -- were several members of the general public.

"They thought everybody should have to pay," she explained. "They were very supportive of (law enforcement) having to pay."

And they will, according to the proposal voted in Tuesday that requires all eastbound vehicles, even those responding to emergencies, to pay. The only exceptions will be Washington State Department of Transportation maintenance vehicles or others directly involved in bridge operations, and Washington State Patrol troopers whose territory includes the bridge.

"That doesn't mean all WSP troopers, just those assigned to that area, which is only a handful," Griffith said, explaining that the commission members modeled the tolling rules after the Washington State Ferries' fare rules. "On the ferry system, a state patrol car is not charged, but any county or city vehicle is charged the going rate. The idea is that the bridge is a state highway facility, and the troopers are charged with securing the bridge."

Griffith said the commission wanted to allow very few, if any, toll exemptions, because"every time they give a freebie, another toll-crosser will have to make up that trip. They are stuck paying for it either way."

However, although officers and ambulances will still have to pay tolls upfront, vehicles that cross the bridge while either responding to or returning from an emergency call can apply for reimbursement, she said.

According to the ruling, "authorized emergency vehicles responding to bona fide emergencies" may be credited for either the responding trip or the returning trip, depending on which is eastbound. To be eligible for a credit, the vehicle must have a transponder and a corresponding prepaid account, and a credit must be applied for within six months after the trip is made.

"The commission instructed the (WSDOT) to make that process as simple as possible," Griffith said, explaining that reimbursements will be handled "on the honor system," rather than officially verified.

When asked why the commission decided to charge those vehicles at all if they will ultimately be credited for emergency trips anyway, Griffith said the process will provide valuable tracking information.

"We will be monitoring those trips to see if it is a significant amount or not," she said. "After a few months, we may decide it isn't that big of a deal and just not worry about it. But it's better to be safe than sorry."

South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Wayne Senter said his district's vehicles make "approximately 4 to 6 trips across the bridge per day," but that he did not view having to install transponders and apply for toll credits as a significant inconvenience.

Senter said it would require staff time to apply for the credits, but he saw that as"just part of doing business, and we don't mind paying our fair share or seeking reimbursement for those qualifying calls."

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