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State heads into toll-setting process for Tacoma Narrows bridge

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Nov. 16, 2011 at 2:24 pm with No Comments »
November 16, 2011 2:29 pm

If, hypothetically, a revenue forecast knocked 8.6 percent of tax collections out of the state budget, it would send shockwaves through Olympia.

But the state is lowering its expectations for Tacoma Narrows bridge revenue by 8.6 percent, yet there are no alarm bells going off. It’s just not that big of a deal in the big picture.

Officials have more serious worries: namely, the bridge’s debt payments, which will balloon from $89 million in this two-year budget period to $108 million in the next one, to $133 million in the one after that.

That’s just shy of a 50 percent increase in just four years — and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The growing debt payments were built into plans before the 2007 span was built, and tolls were always intended to ratchet up and up to pay for them.

Those toll hikes are almost certainly on their way. In recent years they have been kicked down the road as the state Transportation Commission chose to heed local drivers, hold the line on tolls and live off of its reserves. But the reserves will soon run out. At current toll rates, the bridge is about to drop below what’s considered a sufficient cushion, and by next year it will go into a deficit.

That can’t be allowed to happen,  commission Chairman Richard Ford said at a workshop today kicking off the toll setting process: ”I’m afraid that would impact the state’s credit rating in a severe way.”

The only alternative to red ink: raise tolls.

The only question is how much. A citizen advisory board is due to make a suggestion by March, followed by the Transportation Commission setting rates that would take effect in June.

They would replace current rates of $2.75 for customers who pre-pay electronically with Good to Go accounts and $4 cash for the quarter of drivers who stop at tollbooths on the eastbound bridge.

Rates will mostly be decided by the debt picture. At the edges, they could be affected by economic conditions and a troubled transition to a new statewide system of tolling.

State officials told commissioners today they have lowered their predictions for 2012 and 2013 revenue by $8.9 million — 8.6 percent — from a forecast in June. Most of that drop comes from people driving less. Some of it is due to months of delays on a pay-by-mail system that will go into effect once the state starts charging tolls on the Route 520 bridge over Lake Washington.

Officials plan to start 520 tolling in December, along with the new third option for Narrows drivers to pay their tolls.

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