While drivers enjoy the reprieve, the state Department of Transportation is racing to solve a contractor's problems in tolling the old Highway 520 bridge, before delays boost the costs of a new bridge.

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While drivers enjoy the reprieve, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) is racing to solve a contractor’s problems in tolling the old Highway 520 bridge, before delays boost the financing costs of a new bridge.

Deputy Secretary David Dye and Urban Corridors Administrator Craig Stone flew to Texas this week to meet with executives from Electronic Transaction Consultants (ETC) — two months after DOT missed its advertised mid-April date to launch electronic tolling on 520.

The company already has agreed to pay $2 million in penalties, Dye said last week.

The state is missing out on $1 million in tolls each week as the delays drag on.

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Tolls are supposed to support $1.1 billion in construction debt, part of the overall $4.65 billion budget for the six-lane replacement between Interstate 5 and Interstate 405. Even after gas taxes and federal bridge funds are counted, the project remains $2 billion short.

A new floating section is scheduled to be done by late 2014, with the fixed segment in Seattle to happen years later.

This first phase of bridge construction won’t be delayed, predicted Dick Ford, chairman of the state Transportation Commission. “The real impact of this, in my view, in one respect, is going to be minimal,” he said.

But toll delay risks other havoc:

• Toll-backed construction bonds won’t be sold until after tolling begins, according to the state treasurer’s office, meaning the state could end up paying more interest.

But pontoon construction is getting under way this year at Grays Harbor, and contractors bid this week to start assembling the lake section next year.

“If they don’t get the cash stream soon, there’s only one place you can get the money, the motor-vehicle (gas-tax) fund,” Ford said. Trouble is, that money is highly leveraged and running low already, even after lawmakers in recent years deferred other projects statewide.

• The state can’t change its Tacoma Narrows Bridge system to allow camera-based tolls until the system launches at 520, Deputy Secretary Dye said.

Texas-based ETC operates 11 other U.S. tollways, including the largest in the Dallas, Houston and Chicago areas, and altogether one-third of all tolls paid in the country, said spokeswoman Carla Kienast. She said the firm could not answer questions Friday, because of restrictions in its contract with Washington DOT.

DOT announced this month it will audit the company, and Gov. Chris Gregoire called for an expert-review panel.

Paula Hammond, state secretary of transportation, has said it would take 18 months to change toll-collection firms, so firing ETC wouldn’t be an option.

Dye said the company had understaffed its customer-service center and had problems with software. He called ETC “a really good company” but that there is a “disturbing pattern of not having the resources necessary, when they’re necessary.”

Its website and call center were overwhelmed by motorists in February, then testing on the bridge progressed slowly.

Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center, said delays are fairly common in the toll industry — but this is longer than most.

He attributes it to political decisions that DOT would offer convenient tolling for non-Good-to-Go travelers, using cameras that photograph license plates. Those must read multiple plate types from 50 states, at high speed, thousands of times a day, and process that data into the transponder records for accounting.

“The financial mechanism is — the correct term is ‘caddywhompus,’ ” Hallenbeck said.

Elsewhere, only London routinely uses license-plate-reading technology for tolling, he said, but the accounting is simpler and violators stiffly penalized. “ETC appears to have made lousy estimates as to how quickly they could do this,” Hallenbeck said.

The firm took over collections at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge this spring, so that bridge, the Highway 167 high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in Kent, and 520 are unified. When motorists use a “Good to Go” account, money goes into a central fund but later is reallocated to each highway where the toll was collected — an obviously complicated scheme.

The regional ORCA transit-fare card, which divides trips and money among seven agencies, required more than six years from contract to launch in late 2009. Australia-based ERG is being paid $68 million for the first 10 years to create and operate the system.

DOT officials were unavailable by phone Friday for questions about how things went in Texas.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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