Tacoma Narrows bridge drivers will get a third way to pay tolls next year, and it will put an end to the dreaded $52 traffic tickets. Commuters can learn about it at a meeting Wednesday in Gig Harbor.
In addition to setting up a transponder account or paying cash at booths, customers can pay through “photo tolling” of their license plates. The option will become available in January after a statewide customer service center opens.
The changes might also come with cheaper electronic transponders and eventually lead to the removal of toll booths.
License plate tolling is the result of a bill passed last spring that changed the punishment for skipping the toll from a $52 traffic ticket handled by Pierce County courts to a civil penalty overseen by the Department of Transportation.
Cameras already photograph license plates of cars in the through lanes. Most have transponder accounts, with money automatically deducted for each crossing. If they don’t, tickets are sent to the registered owner, determined by the license plate.
Drivers won’t get $52 tickets anymore; they’ll get a bill in the mail for about $4.25, said Craig Stone, DOT’s Toll Division director. That’s the $2.75 transponder rate plus about $1.50 that it will cost to track down the owner and mail the bill.
Pay by mail will be billed monthly, like a utility bill. The exact rates will be discussed during Wednesday’s meeting.
The new option might make the toll booths redundant. Local lawmakers inserted a proviso into the state budget asking DOT to research whether it would be more efficient to operate without toll booths. DOT is evaluating that now and will have a report ready for the Legislature in January, Stone said. Drivers who stop at the toll booths pay $4.
With pay by mail, drivers will get 80 days to pay the toll. If they don’t, it becomes a fine of $40 plus the original toll amount and fees. Most of the money will go toward paying for the bridge, contrary to the $52 ticket that primarily goes to the courts.
The state will begin charging tolls on the state Route 520 Bridge next spring, and there will be no booths. Those without transponders will all pay by mail. DOT wanted the Tacoma Narrows toll operation to be consistent, Stone said.
Also in January, DOT might slash the prices of transponders. They now cost the customer $12.
“Some new transponders are coming out that we are considering, and we’ve had multiple companies give price quotes on them,” Stone said. “They would run us about $5.”
Like transponders, license plates can be linked to accounts. That might be of benefit when there are several vehicles on an account and only a couple of them cross the bridge frequently. Vehicle owners could save the cost of buying transponders for the other ones.
“We think these are all better, customer-friendly options to pay; they’re more consistent across the state and we’re also doing this at a lower cost, so we think its is a win-win for everybody,” Stone said.