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Toll rates increased despite strong opposition

Toll rates increased despite strong opposition

The Washington State Transportation Commission this week voted to increase the rates for various tolled bridges and tunnels despite strong public opposition. The commission approved the rate increases at its Aug. 24 meeting for the State Route 99 Tunnel, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and the State Route 520 Bridge.

Prior WSTC meetings hinted at a likely rate increase for the 520 Bridge, where decreased traffic last year caused revenue to drop so dramatically the state legislature passed bills prioritizing bond payments. At the same time, legislators considered a bill putting “safeguards” on bonding of toll revenue but ultimately didn’t pass it.

The rate increases were justified on the grounds that they were needed to meet bond payment obligations. WSTC Deputy Director Carl See told commissioners that if they didn’t bump up rates it would “put into peril us meeting out financial commitments” and would necessitate legislative action to address. He added that it would also create a negative perception of the state’s ability to pay its debts.

The toll rates increased as follows:

  • A 15 percent increase for all times of day for the SR 99 tunnel, starting Oct. 1, 2021
  • A 25 cent increase for all toll rates on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, starting Oct. 1, 2021
  • Increased midday and evening toll rates for the SR 520 Bridge, starting July 1, 2023

However, some commissioners such as Chairman Roy Jennings highlighted the enormous unpopularity of the rate increases among the public, according to the results of an online public input forum. Open from June 25-July 14, the forum drew 26,276 participants who gave 37,122 responses regarding the proposed toll rate increases.

Every single option for all three tolls was overwhelming rejected by more than 60 percent, with the highest being 71 percent for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. All comments submitted to the commission expressed opposition to the rate increases. 

However, Commissioner Shiv Batra told colleagues “we are tasked to meet the obligations of the state, to provide enough funding to meet our bonding requirements. That’s what we are trying to do. Every knows…that the majority of the people are saying, ‘Please don’t increase the rates.’”

Yet, Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee co-chair Randy Boss told the commission that money has already been appropriated for that bridge to cover minor rate increases. He also cited a state law declaring the bridge’s funding “to be distinct from other Washington state tolling facilities due to its increasing debt service costs. Washington state has since recommended and established financing structures with steadier levels of debt service payments for subsequent tolled transportation facilities, supporting better management of the state’s debt burden and a lower financial burden for toll ratepayers.”

“There is no equitable reason that the burden of future debt service…should be borne by the same toll payers,” Boss said. He added that increasing the toll would cause uncertainty for those in Gig Harbor and elsewhere who “have relied on this flat toll tax and bought homes and opened business. What are you going to tell us next year and the next year?”

The rate increases for the SR 99 Tunnel and Tacoma Narrows Bridge take effect in October. The rate increase for the SR 520 Bridge take effect July 1, 2023.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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