Bill would pay off Narrows Bridge, eliminate tolls

A Narrows Bridge without toll booths?

It’s a long shot, but it could happen, if the state Legislature accepts a proposal by state Sen. Emily Randall and three other Democrats that would use the state’s operating funds to pay off the remaining debt on the bridge — and jettison tolls forever.

The bill would transfer $772 million from the state’s general fund to pay off remaining debts on the bridge.

“This proposal is bold, but the demand is simple: our community here on the Peninsula should get the infrastructure investments we need and deserve,” Randall said in a news release from the Democratic caucus.

Randall (D-Bremerton) said it is unfair to Peninsula residents that state highway dollars are lavished on the I-5 corridor, while toll payers have been left responsible for nearly all the cost of the new Narrows Bridge.

“It’s time for our side of the Sound to get equitable investment infrastructure,” she told The Gateway on Wednesday. “We have an opportunity to right the wrong of the way the bridge was financed.”

“The solution isn’t cheap, but it’s necessary,” she added.

State coffers are full, for now

Theoretically, the money is there.

Because of a strong rebound from the Covid pandemic, tax revenue for the current budget cycle was $898 million more than forecast, and the general fund for 2021-23 is now projected to total about $60 billion, according to the state Office of Fiscal Management. There is also new federal money that could become available because of the Biden Administration infrastructure bill, Randall notes.

But the idea faces headwinds, particularly because the bill, SB 5488, is in the hopper for the 2022 short session, which runs only 60 days between Jan. 10 and March 10.

“I don’t like to bet on odds,” Randall said, asked about the bill’s chances, “But I think if there is any year we should be trying, this is the one.”

She pointed out that her co-sponsor is state Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island), chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. A companion bill in the House, HB 1602, is sponsored by Rep. Dan Bronoske, (D-Tacoma).

Back to the days of no tolls

The bill would remove tolls completely on the twin suspension bridges, built in 1950 and 2007.

Eastbound drivers have been paying tolls on the newer of the two spans since its opening in 2007. The current cash toll is $6.25, or $5.25 with the Good to Go pass.

Prior to that, commuters enjoyed 40 years without tolls on the 1950 bridge, which was paid off in 1965.

The second bridge cost $729 million to build, and interest would bring the total cost to $1.48 billion if the debt is left to run until 2030, according to the state Transportation Commission.

Randall’s bill would pay off the debt nearly a decade ahead of schedule by using operating budget funds. The payout would include $672 million for outstanding principal and interest, $57 million for deferred sales tax on the bridge’s construction and $43 million loaned by the state to freeze toll rates, according to the Democratic caucus.

“We have been paying tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge for a long time,” Randall said Wednesday. “We’ve already paid $780 million, and still have another $770 million to pay off, and that’s going to take another 10 years. I think we need a better deal for our community.”

Idea has local support

Gig Harbor Mayor Kit Kuhn said he supports Randall’s effort.

“I would be thrilled to see the bridge toll go away,” he told The Gateway.

“I have always been surprised that the bulk of the bridge expenses have been on the back of the citizens and individuals where as the state or federal government have not paid more of the share,” he said in an email.

Tracie Markley, who will become mayor in January, greeted the proposal with cautious approval.

“We always appreciate when elected officials work to pay off the bridge debt,” she told The Gateway, “but don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch. I’ll look forward to seeing where the Legislature finds the funding. I hope they’ll put their money where their mouth is. “

She added that any deal that didn’t continue the current guarantee that tolls would end when the bridge debt is paid would be “unacceptable.”

Past efforts led to toll freeze

Bridge tolls have always been unpopular in Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula, where they can add up to $1,250 to an annual commute.

“I hear something almost every week about the burden of bridge tolls,” said Randall, who represents the 26th District, which includes Gig Harbor, Port Orchard and the Key Peninsula, as well as much of Kitsap County.

“There are students trying to decide to attend Running Start classes, folks who commute to work and lose a big chunk of their paycheck, parents dropping kids off for child care across the bridge because that’s where they could find a slot, even just people who want to go shopping in Tacoma. You either have to pay up, take a ferry, or drive all the way around.”

In 2018, state Rep. Jesse Young (R-Gig Harbor) spearheaded an effort to freeze toll rates. Legislators voted to provide up to $85 million in loans to keep toll rates at current levels for the remaining life of the debt through 2030, with one rate increase of 25 cents, which went into effect earlier this year. In spring 2019, the Legislature provided a loan installment of $12.5 million, which kept toll rates at current levels for the 2019-21 biennium.

But because of a decline in toll revenues due to the Covid pandemic, the Transportation Commission is predicting that an additional loan of $39 million from the Legislature will be needed within the next two years.

Randall said the cap was a good idea, but it had the unintended effect of stretching out the time needed to pay off the debt.

Unusual financing decision

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge has a long and storied history, dating to the first bridge, known as “Galloping Gertie,” which collapsed in 1940, just four months after it opened. Engineers said a design flaw made the bridge deck catch the wind in a way that made it cavitate wildly.

At 2,800 feet, the two Narrows bridges form the fifth-longest suspension span in the United States, according to the state Department of Transportation. The second span is the closest parallel suspension bridge ever built next to an existing one.

The unusual decision to finance the second bridge almost entirely from tolls came in 2002, a time when bond issues were failing widely and voters were balking at high-ticket items. “User fees” were the latest legislative buzzword.

“The financing was broken from the start,” Randall said. “I’ve only heard second-hand stories about how it happened, but almost everyone involved since admits that they would never finance a project like that again.”

Randall said her bill will come up for committee hearings sometimes after the Legislature convenes Jan. 10.

People interested in SB 5488 can follow its status at app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary.

This story was originally published December 8, 2021 3:29 PM.

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