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Don’t make example of Narrows toll payers

Post by Kim Bradford on Jan. 28, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
January 28, 2010 7:26 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Come July 1, some drivers who cross the Tacoma Narrows bridge will be paying more to make the trip. The question is: How much more and to what aim?

State Treasurer Jim McIntire, being a numbers guy, would prefer to err on the conservative side.

He’s hoping to improve his chances of driving a bargain when he sells bonds for Seattle’s new Highway 520 bridge in a couple of years. He wants to impress investors with displays of the state flexing its tolling authority in the name of fiscal prudence.

McIntire’s suggestion has prompted a debate over the appropriate size of the bridge account’s reserves. Building a fat savings account is usually a good idea  – unless you’re padding it with money extracted from people who are struggling to pay their bills, much less save.

The bridge account is plenty healthy – for now. Debt payments and other expenses will begin eating into that reserve later this year. The Department of Transportation projects the bridge account would be down to $2.2 million by July 2011 and cross over into the red by late 2012.

Something has to happen, but what McIntire proposes would be a major shift. No longer would tolls be required to just raise “sufficient” revenue to meet the bridge’s expenses. Instead, they would also have to bring in extra money to keep the account’s ending balance plenty flush.

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to government bottom lines. Public agencies walk a fine line between collecting enough money to absorb unexpected shortfalls and stockpiling dollars that would do more good in taxpayers’ pockets.

McIntire’s proposal crosses that line. He would impose a rigid target that would drive reserves high enough to cover nearly four months of the bridge’s total closure. To get there, the state would have to raise bridge tolls by at least 25 percent for both cash and Good to Go transponder customers.

That’s a heavy burden to ask of bridge commuters, who are already paying $700 a year for the privilege of using a state highway to get to work.
The community committee that advises that the state on tolls makes a good case for raising cash tolls by $1 and keeping electronic collection tolls at $2.75. Those rates would maintain a $4.7 million reserve in 2011 and a $5.5 million balance in 2012 – enough to cover a month-long closure of the bridge.

The state Transportation Commission has advanced what it considers a compromise, but the proposal does more to satisfy McIntire than Narrows toll payers. The advisory committee’s concerns are due more weight.

Trying to lump the Narrows bridge in with future tolling projects is like trying to equate homeowners with renters. South Sound drivers are paying for all of the Narrows bridge’s construction, operation and maintenance – not just a portion. And their bridge’s financing plan wasn’t built on the premise of beefy reserves. No show of thrift will cut costs for drivers here.

State policymakers have long insisted on treating the Narrows bridge differently. All this community asks is that they continue to do so.

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