This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
The Tacoma Narrows bridge may indeed be due for higher tolls, but the state Department of Transportation first must reassure the public that its money will pay for a bridge, not bungling by the state or its contractor.
The transition to a new tolling firm, Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp., this spring hasn’t done much to inspire confidence in toll collections.
First, there was the new Good to Go transponder that couldn’t be read on the Narrows bridge, raising the prospect that the state would lose out on $600,000 a year and prompting state officials to scramble to install new equipment.
Then last month, the new company sent Narrows Bridge drivers 23,000 violation notices in the span of two weeks before the state called a halt to the blitz.
Many of the notices appear to have been sent out too late or to drivers who had Good to Go accounts in good standing. While the state looks into the complaints, the clock is ticking on another 60,000 tickets it put on hold.
ETCC’s record on the state’s newest tolling project – the state Route 520 bridge – hasn’t been any better. The state is losing $1 million a month that it had hoped to spend on replacing the bridge because the tolling system has been delayed.
State officials say that they will seek reimbursement from ETCC for at least part of the cost of processing bad Narrows violation notices, as well as any foregone ticket revenue.
Transportation Commission members – who have the responsibility of setting the bridge toll – also assure Narrows drivers that the glitches aren’t driving the need for a toll hike.
They are right in one respect. After bowing to public pressure to put off an increase in both the cash and the electronic tolling rates last year, the commission warned Narrows bridge drivers that the reprieve was only temporary.
The plan was to spend down the toll account’s reserves, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Expenses charged to the bridge account now exceed the revenue coming in.
But even if a toll increase is inevitable and the costs of recent glitches minor in comparison to pending bridge debt payments, what happens on the margins still matters. It decides how high the toll will have to go to keep the bridge account whole.
State officials should be pressing hard for their new contractor to pick up every bit of extra expense or lost revenue caused by problems of its making.
With the public process for a toll hike due to begin this fall, they have little time to fix this mess and convince Narrows bridge commuters that they aren’t paying for a troubled contractor’s mistakes.