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Commuters politely ask for lower tolls

Commuters and the Washington State Department of Transportation have hardly agreed on anything lately regarding the subject of impending tolls on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. But Wednesday night a rare meeting of the minds occurred on the subject of incentives.

“We are highly motivated to find incentives that will encourage commuters to use the electronic transponders (to pay their tolls),” said WSDOT spokeswoman Claudia Cornish, addressing one of the groups gathered at South Kitsap High School to discuss how the agency might best collect money from drivers.

The third in a series of meetings, the Port Orchard event attracted several dozen people who were broken into small groups and polled on a variety of topics ranging from where and when they would like the customer service centers to operate, to what would make them get a transponder.

“We would like at least 50 percent of commuters to be using transponders,” Cornish said, explaining that drivers who pre-pay their tolls will be given small, credit-card-like devices to attach to their windshields, allowing them to breeze by the back-ups waiting at the booths.

Not only will the electronic toll collection (ETC) accounts be convenient for commuters, Cornish said if enough drivers choose that option, it will prevent the six toll booth lanes from backing up onto the highway and blocking traffic.

“That is what we don’t want to happen,” she said, before asking her group what would entice them to get a transponder for their car. One incentive was mentioned again and again — a lower cost, offered in free trips or a free transponder.

“What other benefit would there be to (get a transponder) if there wasn’t a discount?” said Marie Reeves, as one by one the commuters and casual users around her agreed that the convenience of having the tolls pre-paid or being able to skip the lines at the booths was not enough. They wanted lower prices.

Vonnie Gunderson said senior citizens on a fixed income would have a very difficult time keeping up with the tolls, especially when they increased from $3 to $6, while others asked several times for frequent-user discounts such as those offered by the Washington Sate Ferries.

Cornish said all these ideas would be considered, but reminded the group that if tolls were reduced for commuters, seniors, students, emergency vehicles, law enforcement and several other groups mentioned, there would be hardly anyone left who would be paying full price.

The more discounts offered, the longer tolls would be charged to pay off the bridge, Cornish said, adding that even conveniences like mailing statements of ETC account balances to driver’s homes rather than just e-mailing them will contribute to the bridge’s price tag.

“Every penny we spend on collecting tolls, we will have to get back in tolls,” she said.

Overall, the discussions stayed civil and on course, even when many participants expressed concern over how safe their personal information would be if they were to set up an ETC account.

“As safe as it would be in most other large government or financial institutions,” said Cornish.

Cornish said WSDOT officials will be considering all the comments and suggestions gathered at each workshop, and many might be implemented.

For bridge users who could not attend any of the workshops or wanted more opportunities to express their views, Cornish said Gov. Christine Gregoire will be forming a nine-member citizen advisory committee next year.

On that committee, representatives from each community served by the bridge will have an opportunity to advise the Washington State Transportation Commission on how tolls will be imposed.

According to the WSDOT, “No toll charge may be imposed or modified unless the citizen advisory committee has reviewed and commented on any proposed toll charge schedule.”

The next meeting will be held in Tacoma on Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Tacoma Alliance Church, and the last meeting will be held in Key Center on Nov. 9 at 6 p.m. at the Evergreen Elementary School.

For more information, visit www.tacomanarrowsbridge.com

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