SR 520 and Tacoma Narrows bridges: Busting the myths behind the toll rate increases

By guest blogger Emily Pace Glad

You may have heard that tolls increase July 1 for both the SR 520 and Tacoma Narrows bridges. When people hear tolls are increasing, some people assume we’re raising tolls because traffic is lower than we anticipated. Others wonder why we aren’t doing the exact opposite – lowering toll rates then more people will use the bridge. We wanted to take a moment to try and answer these questions.

First, a little toll rate setting 101
Tolls on the SR 520 bridge help pay for a new, safer bridge set to open in 2015 and also help manage congestion. Tolling on the Tacoma Narrows bridge helps pay back the construction bonds used to build the new eastbound span which opened to traffic in 2007.
The Washington State Transportation Commission sets toll rates at a sufficient amount to cover debt payments for construction, operational costs and maintenance.  Basically, toll rate increases are necessary to ensure enough revenue is generated to cover costs to operate the bridge.

Myth #1: You’re raising tolls because traffic has dropped off
Traffic and revenue is right on track for both the SR 520 and Tacoma Narrows bridges. The economy is returning and we're seeing more people using the bridges to head to work, go shopping and more.

It's been a year and a half since tolling started on the SR 520 bridge and we've seen more traffic return to the span. Traffic volumes are nearly 70 percent of pre-toll levels. We knew traffic would decrease initially once tolling started then slowly return. And if you remember, this is the second of four 2.5 percent increases for SR 520 planned through 2015 to ensure revenue continues to meet costs.

On the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, traffic and revenue is also trending well, however, the bridge was financed with an escalating debt repayment plan which means our payments were low when the bridge first opened and rise over time. This also means tolls must increase over time. For example, between 2007 and 2009 the state made $41 million in debt payments and in the current 2011-2013 budget debt payments are nearly $90 million.

Myth #2: Why don't you just cut the toll rate in half? More people will use the bridge
It might seem counterintuitive, but a lower toll rate doesn't necessarily mean more revenue. Instead, it could mean congestion. For example, if the toll rate was reduced by 50 percent, twice as many vehicles would need to pay a toll to make the same amount of revenue. For the SR 520 bridge that means traffic volumes would need to be higher than before tolling started.

Myth #3: Tolls are increasing to cover operational costs
Our costs to operate and collect tolls are actually shrinking, however, we still have to pay back our construction debt.  We are always looking for ways to reduce our costs. On the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, we have actually reduced operating costs every year since the bridge opened in 2007. We hope to do the same with our existing facilities and as we bring on new facilities – such as the I-405 express toll lanes in 2015.
If you would like to know how your toll dollar is being spent, take a look at financial statements we post regularly for each toll facility.