Something about this toll hike smells fishy

It’s hard to say exactly why the Washington State treasurer has rejected the recommendations of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Toll Advisory Committee or why the state Transportation Commission is backing him up, but the whole thing doesn’t pass the smell test.

Last fall, the Advisory Committee recommended keeping tolls at the same $2.75 level for vehicles equipped with prepaid electronic transponders while raising the toll by $1 for those paying in cash.

Two weeks ago, however, the Transportation Commission, on the advice of Treasurer Jim McIntire, voted 4-3 to reject the committee’s recommendation and hike tolls by an additional 50 cents for transponder users.

McIntire said the increase — which would generate enough revenue to cover up to 110 percent of the bridge’s operating costs and debt service, in addition to maintaining a healthy reserve — was needed to keep the state’s interest rates low for future tolled transportation projects.

But with interest rates already at historic lows and the economy still struggling, this seems like a lousy time for the state to hold Narrows Bridge commuters to a higher standard — especially when the project can also be funded through the state’s gas tax if need be.

Skeptics have openly speculated that state officials actually intend to raise Narrows Tolls in order to help pay for projects such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the 520 Bridge in Seattle, which prompted the head of the Transportation Commission this week to author a Guest Opinion (see page A8) that references a state law prohibiting tolls collected on one project from being diverted to another.

But anyone familiar with the history of the Narrows Bridge recalls that several laws had to be changed or eliminated altogether in order to get it built. Likewise, anyone who thinks money collected by the state for any purpose is simply going to sit in a savings account collecting interest has never seen politicians in action.

Something decidedly fishy is going on here, and it has the earmarks of another hosing for Narrows commuters.

When the folks in Olympia assure you there’s nothing to worry about, it’s definitely time to start worrying.

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