Company to take over Narrows bridge tolls

The state has hired a Texas-based company to manage electronic toll accounts and customer service for the Tacoma Narrows bridge.

That doesn’t mean the span’s current toll operator will be completely out of the picture, but it does raise a question of whether tollbooths will be in the bridge’s future.

This week, the state Department of Transportation announced that Electronic Transaction Consultants will manage electronic accounts and customer service for the span between Tacoma and Gig Harbor beginning in 2011, along with the state’s two other projects that require tolls.

The five-year, $23 million contract begins this month, and the state will spend the next year transitioning to the new company.

ETC already manages tolls for the HOT (high-occupancy tolling) lanes on state Route 167, and will handle electronic tolling when state Route 520 in Seattle begins collecting tolls. That is scheduled to begin in spring 2011.

According to DOT, the company will provide a statewide, customer service center that will manage the transponder program, as well as payment processing, violation collections and business management. Tacoma and Gig Harbor will continue to have customer service center branches.

Craig Stone, director of the state DOT’s toll division, said the centralized approach will make it easier for drivers. The move could also result in a cost-savings to the state, although it’s unclear exactly how much that would be.

“We like to call what ETC has the ‘back office’ functions,” he said Thursday. “There’s efficiency to having one back office for all the state projects.”

But the state’s announcement raises questions related to the Tacoma Narrows bridge, which opened in 2007.

The first is what the state will do with the $41 million contract it signed with TransCore, the company that’s collected tolls since the span opened. The five-year contract isn’t scheduled to end until mid-2012.

Stone said TransCore will still manage manual tollbooths and maintenance of the bridge’s field equipment until 2012, but the state plans to renegotiate the contract for a lower amount.

He said the company has done a great job at the Tacoma Narrows bridge, but the state wanted to move forward with a more streamlined approach.

He added that TransCore was hired to handle about 40,000 electronic transactions a day for the bridge. Come spring 2011, ETC will be handling about 150,000 electronic transactions a day from the bridge, Route 167 and Route 520. The list of state projects that require tolls could grow and include the Alaskan Way Viaduct project in Seattle. Any revenue, however, would pay for the project where the tolls were originally collected.

Officials with TransCore could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The new contract also raises questions about whether the state will eventually opt for electronic-only collections at the $735 million Tacoma Narrows bridge.

Of the three projects that ETC will manage in 2011, only the Narrows bridge will offer both electronic and manual tolling at booths that are staffed.

Drivers who use an electronic transponder pay $2.75 per trip to cross into Tacoma. Those without a transponder must stop and pay $4.

Stone said the state will study whether all-electronic tolls on the bridge will be financially viable over the next few months.

On average, it costs the state 30 cents to register every $2.75 electronic transaction and 90 cents to collect every $4 manual transaction, he said.

“I’d like to get experience with the 520 bridge first before we make any decision,” Stone said.

Under the Route 520 bridge model, drivers without a passenger can use transponders or wait to get billed based on a picture of their license plates. Revenue will go toward that bridge’s replacement.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said eliminating manual tolls could work for the Tacoma Narrows bridge, but agreed the state should wait to see if it works on Route 520.

“There’s definitely some technical and processing things that would have to be worked out,” he said.

Alan Weaver of Gig Harbor, chair of the state’s Citizen Advisory Committee on tolls, says he thinks it’s unlikely any changes would happen soon.

“If it is going to cost more money to remove the tollbooths than it is going to save, I say leave it alone until the bonds (on the bridge’s construction) expire,” he said.

Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653