Tacoma Narrows Bridge users, committee reject recommendation for tolls

Washington State Treasurer James McIntire faced a room full of frustrated Tacoma Narrows Bridge users Tuesday night. - Justine Frederiksen/Staff Photo
Washington State Treasurer James McIntire faced a room full of frustrated Tacoma Narrows Bridge users Tuesday night.
— image credit: Justine Frederiksen/Staff Photo

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee was not swayed by State Treasurer James McIntire’s recommendation for higher tolls Tuesday night, despite him appearing in person to present it, and voted 6-1 to only increase the cash price to $5.

“I am still not convinced we need a larger reserve than we already have,” said committee member Jim Pasin, describing McIntire’s recommendation for maintaining 110 percent coverage of the bridge debt and a $10 million reserve by collecting $3.75 from those with transponders and $5 from everyone else as coming “out-of-the-blue.

“I find it disturbing that in 2009, you wrote a letter to the secretary of (the Washington State Department of) Transportation indicating that tolls should be sufficient to cover the debt,” Pasin said, his comments often met with loud applause from the room packed with frustrated toll payers. “(And) history indicates that we don’t need a larger reserve. Is what you’re suggesting appropriate, and what is the justification?”

“My job is to protect the integrity of all the state funds, and make sure that the payouts for the bridge do not impinge on the other funds,” McIntire said. “I do believe 110 percent is the right number. It is my professional opinion, and that is what I was asked to do — give my professional opinion.”

McIntire said the toll rates he recommended for the next fiscal year — July 2010 through June 2011 — would provide 110 percent coverage and create a reserve of $10 million, or three months worth of payments. He said such a reserve was necessary to prepare for unforeseen events that would affect traffic on the bridge, such as spikes in gas or bridge closures.

However, Pasin and other committee members pointed out that the bridge already had insurance to cover “catastrophic events” that would kick in after 36 days of non-payment.

“The extra reserves would account for the bridge being closed for four months, and if that happens, we’ve got bigger problems that paying off the bridge debt,” Pasin said.

Committee member Ron Jones agreed, saying that if gas prices do increase so much that they significantly affect bridge traffic, the committee can always “reconvene and address the situation then.”

“It is fine to have a debate and a discussion about this,” McIntire said. “What I am suggesting are a set of standards that can be applied to all future tolling projects. And no matter what, as the debt service goes up over time, tolls are going to have to go up to cover that.”

According to the Washington State Transportation Commission, the financing of the bridge was designed to have low debt payments in the beginning that would gradually rise over time to lessen the impact on toll payers.

Many on the committee said they understood that tolls will eventually have to increase to cover the larger debt payments, but that given the current economic situation, they would prefer to keep tolls as low as possible for as long as possible.

“For 2010 through 2012, it is very possible to keep the tolls at $2.75/$5,” Pasin said.

Last year, the CAC recommended holding the tolls for Good to Go! users at $2.75 and raising the price for cash/credit card users from $4 to $5. However, after McIntire recommended tolls of $3.75 and $5, the Washington State Transportation Commission, which officially sets the toll rates, proposed $3.25 and $5.

Since the commission recommended higher rates, the proposal went back to the CAC for its vote. McIntire was asked to attend the meeting to explain his recommendation, and dozens of bridge users filled the room to capacity — and then some — to voice their displeasure.

“I think we in this room have been screwed,” said Pete Carr. “You at the state can’t keep taxing and tolling to pay for everything you desire.”

While most of the speakers identified themselves as Gig Harbor residents, Coreen Haydock Johnson, executive director of the Port Orchard Chamber of Commerce, said an increase in tolls would affect Kitsap County, as well.

“This hurts business, tourism and residents,” Haydock Johnson said. “This is not the time to raise tolls.”

When the suggestion that the additional coverage would be used to help the state borrow money for future projects such as the new State-Route 520 Bridge was brought up, McIntire refuted it.

“I would be very upset if I were you and the treasurer came to me and said that’s what he wanted to do,” he said. “We are not using this to get a better bond rating.”

McIntire and representatives from the WSDOT also repeated several times that bridge tolls “cannot and will not be used for any other purpose or project” than the TNB.

Sen. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) also attended the meeting and reiterated his — and that of fellow 26th District Reps. Larry Seaquist and Jan Angel — disagreement with the treasurer’s recommendation.

After the public comment session ended, the committee members explained their positions.

“I do not see a persuasive argument from (McIntire) to increase tolls at this time,” said Caroline Belleci, and all but chairman Alan Weaver agreed with her.

Weaver argued for rates of $3 and $5, saying that he felt the transportation commission would be more likely to follow that recommendation. He was the sole “No” vote against the recommending toll rates of $2.75 and $5 to the commission.

Next, the WSTC will present their formal toll rate proposal in March, then hold public meetings before the tolls are adopted.

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