Drivers will pay 75 cents less to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge beginning Oct. 1, when a new subsidy from taxpayers statewide takes effect.
The lower price, to benefit about 85,000 drivers per day on the state’s busiest toll route, won final approval Tuesday by the Washington State Transportation Commission.
The current $5.25 rate for a two-axle car or pickup will drop to $4.50 for vehicles displaying a Good to Go electronic toll pass. Other drivers may stop at a booth to pay by cash or credit card for $1 extra, or be mailed a bill with a $2 surcharge per trip.
Narrows tolls are collected eastbound only, when motorists go from Gig Harbor into Tacoma. Unlike other Washington state highways, where tolls cover a fraction of construction costs, Narrows tolls were originally meant to fully fund the $735 million, concrete-towered crossing when it was completed in 2007.
Drivers for years have said the rates are burdensome. Legislators felt pressure to abort scheduled toll increases, aiding voters in a swing district with a suspension bridge.
The Legislature this year passed Substitute Senate Bill 5488, which moves $130 million over 10 years from the general fund to pay bridge debt and requires cheaper tolls.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, originally proposed to pay the entire $672 million remaining debt using general fund money. She noted that state revenues have boomed while federal aid is pouring in.
“We have long raised our voices together about the problems with the way this bridge was financed, and the inequity of leaving toll payers responsible for nearly all of the cost,” said Randall, who represents communities west of the Narrows, in a December blog post.
By contrast, tolls rake in just one-fourth of the $4.6 billion total for a bigger Highway 520 bridge corridor across Lake Washington. But the toll target of $1.1 billion exceeds the Narrows total, as do the peak-time tolls ($4.30 each way in late afternoon). And unlike the Narrows project, the 520 budget is loaded with landscaped lids, transit ramps and sound walls that benefit non-drivers.
Even before Randall’s bold proposal, lawmakers approved four internal loans and transfers totaling $111 million since 2007, with bipartisan support, to keep Narrows bridge rates from rising to $6 or higher.
The Gig Harbor area is a swing district where Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, is challenging the Democratic incumbent Randall this year for the Senate seat. Young likewise has a history of co-sponsoring legislation to forestall toll increases, and did vote yes on the 2022 toll-relief bill, along with his 26th District colleague Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Gig Harbor.
A big difference this year is the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s fervor to widen the net for highway money, rather than subsist solely on driver-paid gasoline taxes and car-tab fees. Earlier, lawmakers approved Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to cover Highway 520 and I-405 construction inflation using $500 million in federal grants.
Randall’s bill passed the Senate 28-21 along party lines, except for outgoing Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who lined up with GOP members against the $130 million transfer.
“I just felt on a deep substantive level that applying $130 million on multimodal investments was a better use of taxpayer money,” such as for transit, bicycling or other public infrastructure statewide, Carlyle said Tuesday.
In years past, some GOP members proposed to no avail moving general-fund money — which funds public health, courts, prisons, environmental agencies, social services and schools — into roads. House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said the Narrows toll relief comes from a one-time surplus, not a permanent change that jeopardizes general funds.
In addition, the Legislature passed a 16-year, $16.9 billion plan for transportation projects, maintenance and environmental work this year.
Fey said toll relief at the Narrows was an important piece of a 2022 “grand bargain” that solidified the Legislature’s support for Move Ahead Washington, the huge statewide transportation plan. Fey joined GOP member Young in 2018 in a fund transfer that averted rate shock for Narrows drivers. “The whole financing of that bridge was very messy, at the time,” Fey said.
Despite the cost of tolls, Narrows traffic has returned to pre-pandemic volume, according to Washington State Department of Transportation data. Highway 520, where many commute trips have vanished due to work-from-home, is still one-quarter below its pre-pandemic load of 75,000 daily vehicles.
In the future, WSDOT intends to collect tolls from a future Highway 167 connector between Puyallup and Tacoma, along with future I-405 express toll lanes through Renton and a Highway 509 extension now under construction from SeaTac to I-5.
Choosing among three slightly different options, the commissioners Tuesday extended the new toll discount to freight trucks, whose Oct. 1 rate will top out at $13.50 instead of the current $15.75 for a six-axle vehicle displaying the state toll pass.
“Freight benefits all in the region,” commented commissioner Jim Restucci of Yakima County.