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Seeking guidance, Narrows bridge toll panel delays meeting

Post by Christian Hill / The News Tribune on Jan. 15, 2013 at 4:15 pm with No Comments »
January 15, 2013 4:34 pm

The group charged with recommending toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is postponing its meeting tonight, Tuesday, Jan. 15, to receive more guidance on the process.

The citizen advisory committee is waiting to hear from the Washington Transportation Commission before it convenes for its rescheduled meeting on Feb. 5. The commission will meet Jan. 23 and 24 in Olympia.

The committee is in the midst of drafting its recommendation to the commission, which has the authority to set toll rates.

Noah Crocker, a financial analyst for the commission, said it will discuss and may provide direction on the differential between cash and Good to Go! tolls: the electronic tolls are $1 less than the toll paid at the tollbooth currently.

It will also consider the idea poised by some members of the committee to increase tolls over a two-year period instead of a single year.

Committee chairman Alan Weaver said the benefit of the proposal is that it gives motorists more time to prepare for the increase, but the downside is the toll will be higher because it covers a longer period of time.

WSDOT spokesman Korbett Mosesly wrote in an e-mail another topic will be whether to adjust the commission’s policy requiring a sufficient minimum balance on the bridge.

In 2010, on the advice of the state treasurer, the transportation commission  required that 12.5 percent of the bridge’s annual costs be set aside in reserve to cover shortfalls and legitimate cost increases, equaling $7.1 million in the current fiscal year. The state carries insurance on the bridge, but it only covers the loss of toll revenue if it is damaged and closed down for more than 10 days.

The reserve is unpopular with tollpayers, but the state treasurer has argued that it makes financial sense to basically have an emergency savings account.

The next step in the toll-setting process is for the committee to provide various proposals for recommended increases. WSDOT staffers will run those numbers to see if they provide enough revenue to operate and maintain the bridge, makes its debt payment and leave a sufficient reserve.

Recent projections show the bridge account will be $1.2 million short of meeting the reserve requirement by the end of the 12-month period ending in June 2014. Any toll increase is expected to take effect this summer.

But the committee’s rate proposals would change substantially if the commission were to increase or reduce its reserve requirement, or seek a toll increase for two years instead of one, for instance.

“We just don’t know what the rules are,” Weaver said.

The committee is scheduled to meet from 6 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 5, Feb. 19 and March 12 (if needed). All meetings are held at the Gig Harbor Civic Center, 3510 Grandview St.

The Washington Transportation Commission will discuss its guidance at 1 p.m. Jan. 23, in the commission’s boardroom, 310 Maple Park Ave SW in Olympia.

You’re invited to follow Christian Hill on Twitter @TNTchill.

If you want the details in excruciating, er, detail, here’s the most recent staff report to the advisory committee:

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