The state Transportation Commission today moved toward setting a $5.50 toll for motorists who bypass Tacoma Narrows bridge tollbooths without an electronic pass.
Bills with the new photo tolling rate would be sent by mail to a vehicle’s owner after a license plate is caught on camera.
Cash tollbooths would remain on the bridge for now, charging $4 per vehicle. Drivers with Good to Go passes would continue to pay $2.75.
The vote was 4-0 with Chairman Philip Parker not voting and two vacant seats. The commission will take a final vote Jan. 26 after two meetings to collect public comment in Gig Harbor.
In setting the rate, the commission rejected a call by a citizen advisory commission to set a higher rate of $7 to discourage people from skipping the tollbooths. Members of the citizen panel predicted the $5.50 rate would cost the bridge needed revenue, eventually driving up tolls for everyone.
But the Department of Transportation estimated the extra costs and losses connected with photo tolling would be just $1.50, and suggested adding that to the Good to Go rate for a total of $4.25.
Alternatively, DOT said, the $1.50 could be added to the cash rate of $4. That’s what the commission did, roughly splitting the difference between the largest and smallest proposed rates.
The commission is setting the toll after the Legislature last winter authorized photo tolling and created an 80-day grace period for Narrows bridge drivers who don’t pay. Previously, those drivers caught on camera were immediately hit with a $52 fine.
Photo tolls are scheduled to start in spring when DOT starts a new system for statewide tolling and begins charging tolls on the Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington using transponders and photo tolling. No toll booths will be used.
Advisory commission members want the state to try out photo tolling on Route 520 first and move to the Narrows bridge only after that experiment shows what costs and revenues to expect. Members are skeptical that DOT estimates of savings will pan out.
Transportation Commission members said they couldn’t bump up the rate.
“You’re really asking us to put a penalty on this thing, and I don’t think we have that authority,” Richard Ford of King County told advisory board members.
Several Transportation Commission members thought even the $5.50 rate seemed high, but member Carol Moser of Benton County said it needed to be high enough to encourage buying Good to Go passes.
“If we made it so easy for people to just pay by mail, there wouldn’t be as much of an incentive to buy a transponder,” Moser said.
Initiative 1053, which voters approved in November, could still throw a wrench in tolling plans. The initiative says a fee may only be imposed by the Legislature, which I-1053 author Tim Eyman says means the Transportation Commission can’t raise tolls or ferry fees. I-1053 supporter Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, has asked Attorney General Rob McKenna for a legal opinion on the board’s authority.