How many more e-mails, letters, phone calls, news articles, radio programs, television interviews, e-newsletters, public hearings, bills, amendments and opinion editorials are required before the state finally understands that the citizens I represent in the 26th District cannot afford higher tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge? What else is required to stop tolls from rising?
For months, I have worked to provide option after option to prevent toll increases on the bridge. I introduced House Bill 1051, which would have allowed the Washington State Transportation Commission to sell the naming rights of transportation facilities, including the Narrows Bridge, in an effort to provide enough revenue to keep tolls at their current rates. When majority party leaders did not allow this bill to have a vote in the House Transportation Committee, I introduced another option — House Bill 1965. This measure would have kept the toll rates at their current levels by extending the time it takes to pay the construction costs on the Narrows Bridge – much like a refinance on a mortgage. Unlike the naming rights legislation, the chair of the House Transportation Committee wouldn’t even grant the bridge financing bill a public hearing. So it died in that committee.
On March 8, the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) issued a ruling which stated no transportation toll can be increased except by legislative approval. The ruling was in response to an inquiry from Sen. Pam Roach of whether specific state agencies still had the authority to raise fees following voter approval of Initiative 1185 in November. OFM determined that I-1185 “requires some state agencies to obtain new legislative approval to impose or increase certain fees after Dec. 6, 2012, the effective date of the initiative.” OFM said the Washington State Transportation Commission is among those agencies required to have legislative approval to raise tolls.
But then, as if it completely ignored OFM’s ruling and the will of the people under I-1185, the Transportation Commission voted March 19 to propose a 25-cent-across-the-board Narrows Bridge toll increase, effective July 1, and a second increase of the same amount effective July 1, 2014. It did so, despite Sen. Roach and me telling the commission they no longer have that authority. The commission is moving forward with public hearings in Gig Harbor on the rate increase on Monday, April 15, and a final hearing on May 20.
Meanwhile, back at the Legislature, House Democrats introduced a transportation budget on April 4 through House Bill 1864, which to my surprise, included language that would reinstate the Transportation Commission’s authority “to periodically review and, if necessary, adjust the schedule of toll charges to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.” It also would reinstate that same authority to the Transportation Commission for ferry fares.
I was in shock. Here elected lawmakers have the opportunity mandated to us by voters through I-1185 to determine tolls and ferry fares – an opportunity to protect our citizens from unaffordable increases — and yet the transportation budget measure, House Bill 1864, would intentionally divest the Legislature from its responsibility. I supported an amendment in the House Transportation Committee that would have removed that divestiture language from the bill, but majority Democrats voted against it and the amendment failed.
Citizens in the 26th District are struggling to get back on their feet following one of the worst economic recessions in the past 100 years. Federal sequestration will cut into our local economy and cause more jobs lost in the public and private sector. The Narrows Bridge and our local ferries are the lifeline to the world outside of the Gig Harbor/Port Orchard peninsula. People cannot afford to pay more! That’s why nearly 70 percent of voters in the 26th District approved I-1185. And now the Legislature would ignore this opportunity to prevent toll increases?
Not one person in my district has asked me for toll increases. Many, however, have told me how it will make life even more difficult for them. It’s time to listen to the people.
I plan to offer the same amendment when the transportation budget comes to the House floor. And I will fight as hard as I can on behalf of the citizens I represent with this message: No toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge!
Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, is serving her third term in office representing the 26th Legislative District, and is a member of the House Transportation Committee.