Narrows Bridge: Facts on toll setting

Reading the Nov. 1 editorial (“Tacoma Narrows Bridge: a toll payer money pit”), it is apparent there is a need for better information about how the state of Washington is obligated to pay for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (TNB). It cost $737 million to build the bridge. It cost another $400 million to reconfigure and improve the approaches and make necessary SR 16 corridor improvements on both sides of the bridge to ensure efficient traffic flows between Gig Harbor and I-5. It should be noted the $400 million investment is not being paid for with toll revenue but rather, is funded with gas taxes collected statewide. The state Legislature determined only the bridge would be paid for through tolls.

Washington state issued bonds to obtain the funds necessary to pay for the construction of the new bridge. That is typical of most major construction projects in the United States. The state is legally required to pay the bondholders on a timely basis. The payment schedule is a matter of public information and has been well publicized (schedule is posted on the WSDOT Web site at www.wsdot.wa.gov).

The payment schedule could have been set up like a fixed rate home mortgage, whereby the same amount is paid by the homeowner every month over 15 to 30 years. In the case of the TNB, the Legislature desired to lessen the immediate impact on the toll payers. To accomplish that, the state treasurer set up a debt repayment schedule that started out low early on, and then rises gradually over time. For that reason, initial tolls could be and were set at a relatively low level the first year, i.e.: $1.75 for transponder users and $3 for cash payers. But the payments will keep going up which means tolls must do the same.

Here are some examples of annual requirements as set forth in the TNB debt payment schedule: for the 2007-09 state budget period (which ends on June 30, 2009) the state will pay a total of $41 million in debt payments; in the 2009-11 budget period (starts on July 1, 2009), the state will pay nearly $80 million in debt payments; looking ahead to the 2015-17 budget period, the state payments will rise to $133 million. And they keep increasing until they max out at $174 million in 2029.

Traffic volumes dictate how much revenue is collected and thus also are a big determinant of what toll rates need to be to ensure we collect enough revenue to cover costs. To suggest what future toll rates will be beyond one year, is no more than an educated guess.

But one thing seems certain — tolls will continue to go up and this fact is not because the state is looking to make a profit or use the TNB toll revenue for other uses — neither of which can legally be done. It is simply to meet the state’s fiscal and legal obligations that are simply unavoidable.

Dan O’Neal is the chairman of the Washington State Transportation Commission.

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