Area lawmakers working on keep bridge tolls down

OLYMPIA — Area lawmakers in the Senate and House have introduced bill to hold back toll increased on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Newly appointed State Sen. Nathan Schlicher (D-Gig Harbor) presented Senate Bill 5592 that would restrain the operating costs of the toll bridge and help hold down the need for toll increases. It was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Feb 25.

A few days earlier in the House, State Rep. Jan Angel (R-Port Orchard) introduced a measure that would maintain the current price of tolls on the bridge until financing for the structure is completely re-paid.

Schlicher’s bill would help keep tolls down by limiting the amount of toll revenue spent on bridge oversight and administration. In 2012, those costs amounted to 4 percent of the toll account. The bill would set a 2 percent limit on management costs and dedicate savings to paying for the bridge.

“Keeping tolls as low as possible is vital to the families and the businesses that need to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge every day,” said the Gig Harbor Democrat. “This bill addresses that need by reducing administrative costs and ensuring that as much of the toll revenue as possible goes to serving the debt on the bridge.”

He said the bill is about more than being efficient and about the economic vitality of the communities.

“By setting this benchmark, we are holding the state and the bridge program to a high standard of performance, but it’s a standard I believe they can meet,” Schlicher added.

Angel’s bill would allow tolls to remain the same, but not increased, until such time as all loans and debt are paid on the bridge.

Angel, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said she’s looking for ways to keep toll rates from increasing and satisfy the state’s responsibility to repay the debt on the bridge.

“The tolls were deferred early in the project, which later resulted in higher increases,” said Angel.

She said last week, the state Transportation Commission received a recommendation from the bridge’s citizen advisory committee that it should raise tolls again by 25 cents in July.

“Under the current financing structure, tolls would likely go up every single year, and we don’t know where the high end of this is going to be,” said Angel.“Local commuters cannot afford future annual toll increases.”

Currently, tolls are $4 for electronic collection, $5 at the toll booths, and $6 for pay-by-mail.

Angel’s bill would create a Tacoma Narrows toll bridge account in the motor vehicle fund of the state treasury to receive deposits of toll charges, investment interest, proceeds from the sale of surplus real property acquired for building the second bridge, and any other revenues associated with the bridge.

Money from the account could only be used to repay the financing of the bridge, as well as costs involved with the direct financing, operation, maintenance, management and necessary repairs of the structure.

The measure would cap the yearly amount of debt service repayment from the toll bridge account to $60 million. Additional debt service costs would be covered by a loan from the state’s motor vehicle excise account.

Angel says the state would continue tolling on the bridge until the loan is paid in full, but toll charges would not increase.

“This is like extending a home mortgage. If you have a 15-year mortgage and you don’t want that payment to go up because of different escrow costs, you could extend that mortgage out to 20 or 25 years, but keep the payment the same.” Angel added.

Angel’s measure was submitted Feb. 21, but had not yet been assigned a bill number. The 26th District lawmaker expects the legislation will be referred to the House Transportation Commission for consideration.

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