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Bridge delays threaten toll discount

A potential delay in the completion of the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge has thrown a wrench into plans to offer commuters a discounted toll rate, according to Reema Griffith, the executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC).

“Every day that bridge stays closed will affect the revenue collection,” Griffith said, explaining that a consultant was asked to determine how much the state would have to contribute to the project if some bridge users were offered a 50 percent — or $1.50 — reduction in tolls, as requested by state legislators last session.

“The number they came up with, just very quickly, was $1.3 million, but that was based on a lot of assumptions,” she said, which included that the bridge would be opening in April.

Now that the “worst-case scenario” is the bridge will not open until July of next year, Griffith said the goal is to “pin down the date” of the bridge’s opening as close as possible, then determine how much offering reduced tolls would cost, and if they are feasible.

“There is a very thin margin for error in determining the bonding versus revenue, and a lot of things have changed since the target numbers (relating to a 50 percent toll reduction) were presented,” she said. “In light of this bigger delay issue, the commission will have to determine if we have enough money to offer that discount.”

Griffith said the commission will be assisted in making that decision by a Citizen Advisory Committee that was recently appointed, and will begin meeting either next month or in August.

“Their ultimate role is to advise the commission before any toll is assessed,” Griffith said, explaining that the committee will perform much the same function that the Tariff Advisory Committee does for the Washington State Ferries.

Griffith said hopefully in the next couple of months, both the committee and the WSTC will have a “better understanding” of when the new TNB will be opened, and how much a proposed toll discount will cost.

The WSTC hopes the committee will then be able to present its toll recommendations by this fall, and early next year the WSTC will make a final decision on toll rates.

Another issue the commission is tackling this summer is a statewide tolling policy, which Griffith said is in part a response to questions raised over the TNB project. In particular, she said many citizens asked why tolls would be used to pay off the TNB, but not discussed for other future projects, such as a replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

“We really wanted to take a very high-level look at if the state should do tolling, the feasibility of it, and the dynamics that kick in,” she said, explaining that consultants at Cambridge Systematics, Inc., have been studying the issues involved and made another presentation to the commission at its latest meeting last week.

Beginning this week, Griffith said the commission will be holding several community meetings to both present the tolling study to the public and collect comments about it.

The meeting closest to South Kitsap will be held today on Mercer Island, which Griffith said was one of only five, centrally-located sites chosen.

She said the location is not closer to the TNB because “this study isn’t about the Narrows Bridge — that is pretty much a done deal. These meetings will be about tolling possibilities for the Viaduct, and I-5 and I-90.”

Griffith said the study will be “wrapping up this summer,” but will not be formally presented to the state Legislature until next year.

The tolling study can be read online at: www.wstc.wa.gov/Tolling.

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