Travelers will probably pay 25 cents more this fall to enter the eastbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Seattle’s downtown Highway 99 tunnel.
Toll increases would take effect Oct. 1 under a proposal by the Washington State Transportation Commission. A separate toll boost is scheduled for the Highway 520 floating bridge in 2023.
The second Narrows Bridge, opened in July 2007, is Washington state’s only modern megaproject wholly financed by toll payers. State lawmakers assumed an economic boom, traffic growth and rapid increases in the $1.75 introductory tolls would cover the $849 million construction cost.
“The state at the time didn’t set up a proper debt structure, so it was an unfair burden on drivers,” said Reema Griffith, the commission’s executive director. Motorists seethed as tolls climbed to $5.
To avoid steeper rates, the Legislature authorized loans from gas-tax revenue, to prop up the Narrows fund. That $85 million loan needs to increase to $115 million, the commission says. A 25-cent increase should be the last boost until 2030, and pay off the internal loans, Griffith said.
As for Highway 99, the commission is weighing whether to raise tolls a flat 25 cents or raise tolls 15%, so the peak rate would increase 35 cents, midday tolls 20 cents and overnight tolls 15 cents. Either way, another 3% increase is expected in 2022 and then every three years. Currently, tolls vary from $1 to $2.25 by time of day, in both directions.
Highway 520 toll increases in 2023 could be 15%, which varies from 20 cents to 65 cents by time of day. Another option would lengthen weekday peak periods, resulting in a $1.10 increase from 10 to 11 a.m. and 6 to 7 p.m. The current top rate is $4.30 for Good to Go pass holders, collected both directions.
No changes are planned at Interstate 405 and Highway 167, where solo drivers can pay a variable toll to enter the faster carpool lane.
Drivers can comment on the proposals until July 14 at wstc.wa.gov/programs/tolling before the commission votes Aug. 24.
Highway 99 tolls are required to cover maintenance, plus $200 million of the state’s $3.2 billion cost for tunneling, new surface streets and demolition of the old Alaskan Way Viaduct.
But the tunnel income fell $12.2 million below budget, as traffic dropped 37% from its pre-COVID-19 volume of about 80,000 daily vehicles. This fall’s increase is needed to close the gap, even if traffic resurges, the commission says.
High tolls conflict with Seattle’s need to entice drivers off surface streets and into the tunnel.
Griffith doesn’t believe 25 cents more will trigger downtown congestion. But the tunnel opened Feb. 4, 2019, so there’s not enough experience to know for sure, she said.
Highway 520 even required a federal bailout, just to keep toll rates stable.
Toll payments there ran $52.7 million below forecasts as traffic declined by half in the pandemic. Even now, only 56,403 toll payers crossed the floating bridge June 23, compared with 89,953 the same Wednesday in 2019 — a 37% decline. In response, the Legislature shifted $40 million from other transportation accounts and set aside $50 million from the federal American Rescue Plan to cover the bridge’s expected losses through 2023.
Without those subsidies the state risks violating its agreements for Highway 520’s toll-backed bonds, which provide $909 million of a total $4.65 billion to replace the old 1963 bridge and connections. The state isn’t broke, but did promise investors the bridge would generate steady cash flows.
Tacoma Narrows traffic, of around 48,000 vehicles eastbound, returned to normal months ago and Griffith said tolls there would increase regardless of the pandemic.
In theory, Olympia could avoid raising tolls by shoveling more gas-tax money toward the three highways. But doing so drains money from other highway rebuilds, widenings and preservation work.
“Somebody’s projects would be getting shorted. All the gas tax money’s obligated, so that’s not a solution,” Griffith said.