State lawmakers have approved a plan they say could keep the Tacoma Narrows bridge toll flat through mid-2019.
A $5 million transfer approved by the Legislature last week should provide enough money to stop bridge tolls from rising in the near future, said state Reps. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, and Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor.
The temporary transfer of gas-tax money should ensure the balance in the state’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge Account doesn’t dip below unacceptable levels, eliminating the need to raise bridge tolls in July 2018, Kilduff said.
The $5 million loan would be transferred back to the state’s motor vehicle account later in the two-year budget cycle.
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The plan is part of the state’s two-year transportation budget, which the Legislature approved Friday and awaits Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature.
If this starts to mitigate the problem, it takes a divide away from two communities ... If you remove that divide, business grows both ways.
State Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor
“I think middle-class folks, commuters, the traveling public — they’re feeling pretty nickeled and dimed these days,” said Kilduff, who worked with Young to address bridge tolls in the transportation budget.
“I do think it will be helpful to families to know they don’t have to be confronting these toll increases at a time when our economy is still recovering,” Kilduff said.
Right now, two-axle vehicles crossing the eastbound span of the bridges from Gig Harbor into Tacoma pay $5 if they use an electronic Good To Go pass, $6 if they pay in cash, and $7 if they choose to receive a toll bill in the mail.
The Washington State Transportation Commission, which sets toll rates, has already decided to keep those toll prices frozen through June 2018.
But there was a possibility tolls would need to rise again in July 2018 — the start of the 2019 fiscal year — to keep up with the costs of maintaining the bridges and paying off debt from the new bridge’s construction, said Carl See, senior financial analyst for the transportation commission.
The commission will begin its work setting those toll rates later this year, See said.
I think middle class folks, commuters, the traveling public — they’re feeling pretty nickeled and dimed these days.
State Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place
While an increase is still a possibility, See said a preliminary analysis suggested the Legislature’s $5 million transfer should give the commission more flexibility to avoid raising tolls in July 2018.
If the transportation commission agrees with that assessment, the next toll increase on the Tacoma Narrows bridges wouldn’t come until July 2019 at the earliest, See said.
Young, the Gig Harbor lawmaker, also amended the state transportation budget to create a work group to find ways to stop toll increases in the future. That group is directed to deliver a report on possible solutions to the Legislature by Dec. 1.
Young said the immediate toll freeze is intended to give the work group more time to come up with a permanent fix for rising tolls.
Since the eastbound span over the Tacoma Narrows opened in 2007, toll rates have doubled for cars paying cash at a tollbooth and nearly tripled for those using electronic Good To Go passes. Lawmakers stepped in two years ago with $2.5 million that helped suspend a planned toll increase in 2016.
The transportation commission predicts it will be able to end tolling on the Narrows bridges in 2032, after paying off the debt and construction costs for the new span.
Young said rising tolls hurt not only commuters, but economic development. People living in Tacoma who might otherwise cross into Gig Harbor for a movie or shopping may think twice about it, given the cost of the toll, and vice versa, he said.
“If this starts to mitigate the problem, it takes a divide away from two communities,” Young said. “If you remove that divide, business grows both ways.”