Citizen committee sets toll recommendations


Rodika Tollefson, KP News

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizens Advisory Committee forwarded its list of 15 recommendations regarding the toll to the Washington State Transportation Commission in January. Comprised of nine citizens appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire, the commission has met for the past few months to discuss the toll rates, potential discounts, and other issues.

Sonja Morgan

The CAC recommended setting the initial toll at $3 per vehicle for cash payments, and $1.75 for commuters who pay electronically via the Good to Go! electronic collection system. The commission recommended no other discounts to any groups, “in part because of the difficulty of identifying those persons within a group and assuring that there was no abuse to the system, in part because of favoring one worthy group to the expense of another worthy group and in part because of the administrative cost in administering such discounts or exemptions,” according to the recommendations.

Sen. Derek Kilmer led a group of legislators representing Gig Harbor/Key Peninsula, Tacoma and South Kitsap areas in asking Gregoire to include a $10 million appropriation in her proposed budget to “buy down” the tolls for the period when the existing bridge is closed for retrofitting. In the event of the appropriation, the CAC recommended leaving the cash toll at $3 and discounting the electronic toll collection fee to $1.

According to Janet Matkin, spokeswoman with the Washington State Department of Transportation, the transportation commissioners agreed in principle with the recommendations but will take a closer look at the proposed toll amounts. The commission has not set a timeline on the final decision, but the WSDOT planned to open its Good to Go! customer service center in the spring, at which time it’s expected that the toll rate should be known.

The Citizens Advisory Committee will remain in place for the life of the toll, and will meet regularly to evaluate toll collection/bond payment data.

The Key Peninsula News met with Sonja Morgan, a 27-year-old Lakebay resident who was appointed to the CAC, to ask her about her experience. Born and raised on the Key Pen, Morgan returned to live on the Key Peninsula after a few years away. She currently works for the state House of Representatives Office of Program Research in Olympia as a session clerk.

Key Peninsula News: Why did you want to be involved with the tolls committee?

Sonja Morgan: I’ve always been interested in the bridge and wanted to make sure the Key Peninsula community was considered as part of the bridge users, so I applied. I’m the youngest person on the committee.

KPN: How would you describe your experience on the CAC?

SM: I was very happy to be on the committee. I think we looked at a lot of different issues concerning tolls and financial scenarios. I feel like we’ve covered a lot but I also feel we could have met more to discuss issues more in-depth. In my opinion, we were rushed to get a recommendation out, but I feel we’ve accomplished a lot.

KPN: What kind of issues did you examine?

SM: Some issues we looked at were toll rates, discounts, time of day pricing, per axel charge, building up of reserve funds, capacity of the tolling facility and electronic toll collection, user friendliness, marketing of the Good to Go! program and early retirement of the bond debt.

We looked at discounts, and came to the conclusion that it’s difficult to implement a discount when you have electronic tolling and cash tolling. We came to the realization pretty quickly that in order for traffic to not get congested, there needs to be a certain percentage of electronic toll collection, but to have a discount verified, you’d have to go through the toll booth, and we didn’t want that to become a traffic issue. And we didn’t want to favor one group over another. (Discounts) was a big question — it was a fairness issue, and we were especially concerned about those who use the bridge frequently.

KPN: What was the most challenging part for the group, in your view?

SM: I think it was a great challenge to be charged with the task of working out a toll rate that we felt was fair based on projected figures of toll revenue and concrete figures of bond debts. There were a lot of unknowns … (such as) the effect the tolls will have on bridge use… and differing opinions on what traffic flow will look like after the tolls are implemented.

KPN: How did you arrive at the final toll figures?

SM: We looked at data provided by the Department of Transportation that the consultant calculated, and some members of the committee calculated their own numbers as well. We tried different scenarios: $2, $4…

KPN: Are you satisfied with the recommendations?

SM: I think that the 15 recommendations we decided on do cover a lot of ground, from toll rates for the Narrows Bridge to larger statewide issues of a $10 million buy-down and future tolling projects. I would have liked to see the 15 items be filled out more in-depth, however, including more discussion on how we arrived at these decisions. I personally feel as if we were pressed for time, with a Jan. 16 deadline, and I consistently encouraged the group to meet more often.

KPN: What was the most difficult part for you?

SM: The most difficult part of the process, for me, was where to start, how to initiate group dialogue on the difficult issues. This is also the part I like best about being on the committee – times when we discuss different perspectives and present creative ideas. I feel very strongly about having this be an ongoing thorough process where everybody’s voice is heard.

KPN: What else do you think is important for the public to know regarding the committee’s decisions?

SM: It is important to remember that the CAC continues to be in existence as long as there are tolls on the bridge. It is written into legislation that we must be consulted on any proposed changes to tolls. We have requested that the DOT provide the CAC with monthly reports outlining the actual toll revenue, operational expenses and traffic flow that occur once the new bridge is open and tolls are implemented. We will be looking at this information, along with public input, to respond to the functionality of Washington state’s only current tolling project. The Citizens Advisory Committee can be contacted through email on the DOT Website. Although, at this point, we do not know if the Transportation Commission will adopt the recommendations made by the CAC, I urge bridge users to review them and provide feedback to the committee.

Related information: Rep. Kilmer's letter to the Governor and CAC Final Recommendations