A citizens advisory committee will meet Tuesday, Nov. 13, to start the process to raise tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge next summer.
The convening of the committee comes more four months after toll increases took effect July 1. The increases were the first in four years.
As I reported extensively in July, when the bridge turned five years old, another rate hike is all but a foregone conclusion. The financial plan used to construct the bridge relied on growing traffic and revenue to make the escalating debt payments; the bridge’s debt service is paid for exclusively by tolls. To meet those payments, officials decided to increase the toll every few years from the time it opened until 2016.
Those projections, however, haven’t borne out, primarily due to the weak economy. Traffic and revenue remain flat. For instance, 14,066,929 vehicles crossed the bridge during the 12-month period ending June 30, according to numbers from the Washington State Department of Transportation that are still being finalized. That’s 1.6 million fewer vehicles than was projected to cross just two years ago, and just 3,500 more vehicles that crossed during the 2011 fiscal year.
The bridge earned $44.1 million in toll revenue during the 2012 fiscal year, just $54,000 more than the prior 12-month period.
Meanwhile, debt payments on the bridge will continue to increase. The total principal and interest payment increases to nearly $54.6 million during the 12-month period that begins July 1, 2013, from $45.7 million this fiscal year, a jump of almost $9 million.
The state can’t continually raise tolls to meet those debt obligations. Before the bridge opened, officials pledged the toll would go no higher than $6. Politicians are known to break promises, but they can’t keep steadily raising tolls to pay their out of the financial jam. At a certain level, the bridge will give up more money in lost traffic than could be gained through higher tolls.
Since the higher tolls took effect July 1, state officials have reported a 1.75 percent reduction in the average number of toll collections each day in July and August compared to that period in 2011, according to information presented to the Washington Transportation Commission last month.
At Tuesday’s meeting, state officials will present updated financial information to guide the advisory committee’s discussion into early next year. It’s charged with making a recommendation to the transportation commission, which is authorized to set toll rates.
All advisory committee meetings are on Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will be held at the Gig Harbor Civic Center 3510 Grandview St. Here’s the schedule:
• Nov. 13, work session
• Dec. 11, work session
• Jan. 15, meeting and public input
• Feb. 19, meeting and public input
The new toll rates would take effect July 1. The current rates are $4 using Good to Go!, $5 using tollbooths and $6 using pay-by-mail.
Follow Christian Hill on Twitter @TNTchill