Toll talks on tap

Tolls — both how much the public should pay and how the public feels about paying them — are being discussed this week during this month’s meeting of the Washington State Transportation Commission.

At meetings both yesterday and today, commission members were expected to receive the results of a statewide survey measuring public attitudes toward tolls in general, and also to discuss possible cost reductions for drivers who pay electronically to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

According to the toll study prepared by the commission earlier this year, “The commission does not have the authority to take action to reduce expected toll revenue needed to meet state law...(but it can) recommend to the Legislature that additional budget (money) be provided to make up any shortfall.”

Since the state budget this year does include a “legislative appropriation that provided a subsidy for limited toll reductions,” the commission can consider setting electronically-collected tolls at a reduced rate.

Currently, the proposed toll structure for the TNB is $3 for all eastbound vehicles once the new bridge opens in 2007, with toll increases of $1 every three years until a maximum of $6 is reached in 2016.

However, three scenarios were presented in the recent tolling study for reduced rates:

• Allowing frequent users to have reduced toll rates: Anyone making more than two trips across the bridge each week would benefit in this scenario, giving 55 percent of trips a frequent user discount, resulting in a $358 million loss in revenue over the 2007 to 2030 forecast period.

The revenue shortfall would need to be made up from other sources or from increases in the toll for those who are not frequent users. Someone using the bridge twice per week would save 13 percent, and someone using the bridge five times per week would save 36 percent on tolls.

• Reducing the amount of tolls paid by all bridge users. In this scenario, the opening year toll would be reduced to $2 for cars, with scheduled toll increases topping out at $5 instead of $6.

This would result in a shortfall of $391 million over the life of the bonds, or $18 percent of total toll collections.

• The final scenario has passenger car tolls being kept constant at the opening year rate of $3, and not increasing with inflation. The impact of this would be even more significant, with a $942 million — 42 percent — shortfall that would need to be made up from other sources.

Also at today’s meeting, commissioners will hear an update on the convening of a nine-member Toll Citizen Advisory Committee appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire for the bridge. 

The citizen committee will advise the Commission prior to the tolls being set.

Finally, executives of the Traffic Safety Commission will present the Washington State Strategic Highway Safety Plan at today’s commission meeting, which helps shape development of the Washington Transportation Plan being released later this year.

Both plans help determine federal and state funding levels for traffic safety and other transportation needs.

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