Lawmaker proposes to use gas tax to help keep tolls down on Narrows Bridge

Government: Transportation package may include a way to ease financial burden on peninsulas

of the GatewayDecember 4, 2013 

State Rep. Larry Seaquist is asking for an increase in the gas tax provide a lower toll on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The proposal from the Gig Harbor Democrat would drop the base price from $4.25 to $4. It would be part of a transportation bill to raise the gas tax.

“What I’m trying to do is insist that the deal not go through unless they fix our bridge toll,” Seaquist said.

The toll increased by 25 cents in July, and it will go up by an additional 25 cents next July to bring the base price to $4.50.

The bridge toll will be on a steady rise, Seaquist said, but the gas tax could ease finances for commuters who live “behind the bridge.”

A new gas tax may either be a 10 1/2 or 11 1/2 cent increase, Seaquist said. It’s still in negotiation. A transportation package made it through the House of Representatives last session, he said, but it stalled in the Senate.

It continues to float around the Legislature, and Seaquist said there may be a special session before the end of the year. If that doesn’t happen, the bill will “just kind of get mushed out into the regular session,” he said. The regular legislative session starts Jan. 13.

Seaquist believes a higher gas tax and a rising bridge toll is an unfair burden on peninsula-area taxpayers, whom he called the “guinea pigs” of electronic tolling.

A new gas tax is proposed as a solution to fix aging infrastructure statewide — specifically the state Route 520 floating bridge — and to avoid tolling on Interstate 90. Seaquist is OK with that, but not without easing the burden of taxpayers who use the Tacoma Narrows regularly, especially if they’re going to be paying for another bridge that’s not in their district every time they fill up at a gas station.

“Here we are, paying 100 percent of our bridge, and we’re paying gas tax for the 520 bridge,” he said. Seaquist said if easing the financial burden of tolls with taxes is a good policy for the 520 bridge, it’s good policy for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, too.

Reema Griffith, the executive director of the state Transportation Commission, said the commission won’t speculate on future rates. It’s set on an annual basis while it takes in variables such as the economy, the debt from bonds sold to build the bridge and population growth.

A governor-appointed Citizen Advisory Commission meets to analyze those factors and to make recommendations to the commission. The process of determining the toll for the coming year will start after the new year.

Toll changes go into effect on July 1, the start of a new fiscal year.

The bonds were sold when economic projections were more optimistic, Griffith said. Between now and 2030, those projected numbers could grow or decrease.

Griffith said she’s aware tolls can be frustrating for drivers.

“Obviously, it’s hard to have rates go up every year,” she said. “It’s not ideal.”

Should Seaquist’s proposal get through the Legislature, it would be part of the deliberations when the Citizen Advisory Committee and the Transportation Commission set the toll.

“You never know what’s going to come out (of the Legislature),” Griffith said. “We will be very mindful.”

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