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Lawmakers mulling bills to help tollpayers

Local lawmakers are working on three bills that would ease the financial pain on Narrows Bridge tollpayers, one of which passed the Washington State House of Representatives last week in what Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) called an “exciting victory.”

“Seeing this exemption pass the House so early in the session is a big win for our area,” said Kilmer, who sponsored House Bill 1865 along with fellow 26th District Rep. Pat Lantz. “Tollpayers are going to be asked to carry the financial burden of this bridge, and cutting out roughly $40 to $50 million off the final bill is going to help.”

Kilmer said he strongly backed the bill for two reasons — to lower the overall cost of tolls for bridge users, particularly those already struggling to make ends meet, and to eliminate the double burden of a tax and a toll.

“Over the next 25 years, (bridge) commuters will have to pay more than $2 billion in tolls for the $850 million project,” Kilmer said, explaining that on top of the tolls — which he averaged at $750 per year per family — that will begin next year, “we’ll also have to pay a sales tax, although the state kicks in very little to the project.”

On Jan 13, the bill passed the House with 94 “yes” votes and only two “no” votes, a margin Kilmer said he found very encouraging.

“It’s pretty neat that it was the third bill to pass the House this year,” he said. On Monday, the bill was passed to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Also this week, Sen. Bob Oke (R-Port Orchard) filed two unrelated bills that also aim to reduce the total amount of debt bridge commuters will have to pay off in tolls.

The first, Senate Bill 6640, creates a state sales-and-use tax exemption on materials, machinery and equipment used to construct the bridge.

“This will save tollpayers about $50 million, and because the Narrows Bridge is currently the only toll facility under construction, I think this is fair,” Oke said, explaining that his measure also provides a sales-and-use tax exemption for other toll projects that may be built in other parts of the state in the future.

But his bill stipulates that the exemption only kicks in if at least 90 percent of the cost of project is paid for by tolls.

“My bill differs from (Kilmer’s) bill in that his allows the exemption if at least 80 percent of the cost of the project is paid for by tolls,” Oke said, explaining that “when I talked to (Gov. Christine Gregoire) about this last year, she told me she would sign the bill if it said at least 90 percent.”

Oke’s second bill, SB6674, requires the proceeds from the sale of any land

acquired for the bridge project that becomes surplus and any penalties

paid by suppliers and contractors for not being on time to be deposited

in the toll account to help pay off the bridge.

“Because of the (recent need to replace unusable wire bought for the bridge), there is a possibility it might not open up on time,” Oke said. “I’m not sure what the daily costs will be if that happens, but it is a concern. If that happens, the penalties collected will go back to paying off the loan on the bridge.”

Rep. Kilmer said that as far as he could immediately tell, the effect of HB-1865 and SB-6640 would “be about the same,” and that he and fellow lawmakers Oke and Lantz were “all working together with an eye toward saving tollpayers money, and getting them a fair deal.”

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