Boss takes another swing at Narrows Bridge reserve fund

RandyRandy Boss petitioned the Washington State Transportation Commission Tuesday to eliminate a policy that requires Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls to be used to maintain a sufficient minimum balance, or reserve fund.
The longtime bridge watchdog and new member of the Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee has long railed against the reserve fund, which is 12.5 percent of the bridge’s annual costs. He presented the same arguments in his petition.
First off, he claims it’s not a legal cost that can be passed on to toll payers. The commission must set tolls in amounts just enough to pay for the bridge’s financing, operation, maintenance, management, insurance and repairs. State code doesn’t mention a reserve fund.
In 2010, three years after the bridge opened, the Transportation Commission approved a new policy to establish the sufficient minimum balance. Boss said policies have to be filed with the code reviser, who has no record of that happening. He also states that state code requires the change to be made by rule, not a policy statement. State law says policies are advisory, and an agency is encouraged to convert long-standing ones into rules.
The policy states that the bridge has an insurance policy providing toll revenue coverage if it is damaged and shut down for more than 10 days. However, it doesn’t apply to unanticipated losses in tolls from decreases in traffic volumes, like if a catastrophe happened to the highway leading to the bridge.
The Transportation Commission got an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office, the state’s legal arm, saying the sufficient minimum balance is legitimate. It said the Legislature granted the commission broad discretion to determine conditions that warrant a change in the toll rate, and the sufficient minimum balance is legal unless it abuses that discretion. Boss says the opinion comes from the assistant attorney general assigned to the commission, is biased and rephrased to question to whether the reserve fund was consistent with the commission’s toll-setting authority, not whether it was a legal charge to toll payers.
By the end of this fiscal year, there’ll be $12.4 million in the reserve fund. If it was eliminated, there would be no need for a 50-cent toll increase on July 1. In the long run, there would be no overall savings because the bridge cost remains the same. Money in the reserve fund eventually pay for the bridge. Without it, however, current toll payers could slough the costs off to future ones in the 2030s.
Boss made motions at a couple citizen advisory committee meetings to eliminate the sufficient minimum balance requirement, but nobody seconded them.
The Legislature could once and for all kill the argument, which occurs at nearly every citizen advisory meeting, by changing the reserve fund policy to a rule and clearly include it as a legal expense.
The Transportation Commission must respond to Boss’ petition within 60 days.