Tag Archives: Tacoma Narrows

More on eliminating Narrow Bridge’s toll booths

The in basket: The recent Road Warrior column on why the toll booths at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge remain in service when pay-by-mail (photo) tolling and the Good to Go! electronic tolling would seem to make them unnecessary brought two interesting responses from state senators.

I had surmised that the other two means of collecting the toll allow out-of-state scoff-tolls (hey, I invented a new word) to cheat with little threat of being caught.

State Sen. Jan Angel of Port Orchard wrote, “You hit the nail on the head in that the cash coming through those toll booths is cash into the till. As you have read recently, there have been errors and mistakes and problems with the photo tolling pay by mail. Millions of dollars have gone uncollected.

“I will fight to keep those toll booths open as cash in the register is a certainty and a bill in the mail is a hope of payment. If folks are local we at least have a way to pursue payment by forcing them on to license tabs. You are so correct that if it is a tourist, we may not get paid at all.”

Another local legislator, Sen. Christine Rolfes, had her staff working the same issue at the request of constituent Neil Streicher, who wanted to know if a news report that the toll booths cost $10,000 a day was right.

He figured that would come to $3.5 million a year that could be saved by closing them. He forwarded to me the following response from Rolfes staffer Linda Owens, which she got from bridge officials:

“It does not cost $10,000 a day for toll booth operations. We pay our lane systems vendor, TransCore, approximately $3.2 million a year (roughly $8,800 per day) to operate both the toll booths and the electronic tolling lanes. However, our contract does not break out costs specifically for toll booth operations because there are many shared costs between the booth and the electronic tolling lanes.

“TransCore employs about 30 local staff, to collect tolls and supervise operations. The manager, maintenance personnel, IT support, building, maintenance shop, landscaping, lighting, etc. are all costs that are necessary for both toll booth and electronic tolling operations and which would need to continue even if toll booths were eliminated. An estimate of the costs to operate either function on its own would require additional study, but it is clear that eliminating toll booths would not necessarily lead to higher revenue.

“Toll booths are a very popular method of payment among drivers, which more than cover their own cost,” the response said. “The cost to collect at a toll booth is about 62 cents higher than the cost to collect with a Good To Go! pass due to the labor cost of staffing the toll booths. Twenty-four percent of customers find cash payment convenient enough that they are willing to pay $1 higher toll rate.  “Compared to a Good To Go! pass, cash payment at the current toll rates produces higher net revenues per transaction which, on Tacoma Narrows Bridge, implicitly subsidize frequent users who pay a lower Good To Go! rate.”

That 24 percent figure is hard to believe. I have never been through the toll booths, having used a transponder since the new bridge opened. But in passing by, I’ve never seen backups that looked like they’d translate to one vehicle in four using the toll booths.

Yet back in 2011, when the impact of cashless toll collection was studied for the Legislature, the study found even more, 29 percent, paying cash.

Whatever, the thinking seems to be that the toll booths subsidize the other forms of payment.


Why keep the bridge toll booths?

The in basket: Tom Brooke of Poulsbo writes, “The state was considering raising the Narrows Bridge tolls but did not, which is good. But why are the toll booths still manned by toll takers?

“If they can use Good to Go! passes and photo license plate cameras then why do they still need takers? It seems this would be a logical place to cut expenses and eliminate the need to raise more in the future.

The out basket: My guess was that it would greatly reduce the number of out of state drivers who would pay the toll. But the state toll division says, “In 2011, at the direction of the state Legislature, WSDOT completed a study on removing the toll booths at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and switching to all-electronic tolling.

“In the study, WSDOT recommended additional analysis after implementing the Pay By Mail options to help determine whether to move to all-electronic tolling on the bridge. WSDOT would need additional direction from the Legislature to further evaluate the removal of the cash toll booths.”

Skidding on a motorcycle on Narrows Bridge patches

The in basket: Chuck Ryers said he was motorcycling to Lacey one rainy day in May, running in cruise control over the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge when his path took him over one of several strips of tar patching on the bridge deck.

He suddenly lost traction, which kicked it out of cruise control. He reaccelerated to 60, but crossed another of the patches. “Next thing I know I was fishtailing,” he said. “I looked back and saw a four-inch strip of tar. It was slicker than snot  in the rain.”

He wondered about whether some abrasive, like sand, could be put in the black patching material to make it less slippery.

The out basket: The first thing I told Chuck was using cruise control in the rain is a bad idea, for the very reason he encountered – sudden loss of traction.

When I first heard this advice years ago, relating to cars, I couldn’t find anyone to confirm it, but now it’s come to be conventional wisdom. I didn’t know that motorcycles had cruise control, but probably the advice applies to them as well, possibly more urgently, though as I recall the disparity in traction between the two drive wheels of a car on very wet asphalt was supposedly the reason for the danger.

I asked state officials about his idea and while I was at it, what needed a row of narrow patches on the new bridge.

Claudia Bingham-Baker of the Olympic Region public affairs staff for highways says, “We agree with you that it is not a good idea for motorcyclists to drive with cruise control in the rain, especially when crossing a bridge like the Tacoma Narrows where high winds could also be present.

“The substance to which he refers is a tar-like substance that was used to seal bridge deck patches that were done under warranty.  We will investigate the issue and consider options for making the substance more skid-resistant.

“As far as I know,” she said, “we’ve not done that type of work on bridge decks elsewhere.  Please thank the reader for bringing the issue to our attention.”

Tim Eyman and Galloping Gertie

The in basket:  When I read the item in Friday’s paper about someone wanting to name the Skagit River bridge at I-5 after Tim Eyman, “dedicated to (his) efforts to reduce Washington state tax revenue and the collapse of the Skagit River bridge…” it wasn’t immediately clear to me whether it was proposing an actual plaudit or taking a tongue-in-cheek swipe at Eyman for depriving projects such as fortifying the aged bridge the money to do it.

Eyman’s response that personal attacks on him are “silly” cleared that up.

But had it been a real plaudit, it would not be without precedent.

I’ve been hanging onto a new release for about a year, announcing that “the state Department of Transportation and the American Society of Civil Engineers have joined in recognizing the collapse of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge (in 1940) as a major event in the development of building bridges.”

It announced a ceremony at the Living War Memorial Park at the Tacoma end of the existing Narrows bridges last Aug. 11 dedicating the old bridge as an ASCE Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

“Even though no human lives were lost,” the news release said, “the unforgettable images of twisting metal and concrete deck sections crashing into Puget Sound immortalized engineering gone wrong. Galloping Gertie, open for only four months at the time of its collapse, became a powerful symbol of the importance of aerodynamics on suspension-bridge stability.”

The ceremony would “formally recognize the significant effect the failure of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge had on advancing the science of suspension-bridge design,” it said.

I didn’t get down to that park on Aug. 11, and during a brief, wind-chilled visit there last fall, I didn’t see any permanent evidence of the honor. I asked if there was one and if the ceremony was held.

The out basket: Claudia Bingham Baker of the Olympic Region of WSDOT, replied to say the ceremony was held.

“The chapter (of ASCE) funded the fabrication of a very nice plaque commemorating the contribution of Galloping Gertie to the importance of aerodynamics in suspension bridge design, which they ceremoniously presented to WSDOT (Kevin Dayton, Olympic Region Administrator).

“They are working to raise more money to build a permanent display in War Memorial Park, in which the plaque would be embedded. But they’ve not achieved that yet.”



Yes or no on July 1 Narrows Bridge toll increase?

The in basket: Glen Adrig e-mailed to say, “I’m a bit confused about changes to the Tacoma Narrows and SR 520 Bridge tolls.

“An article in the Kitsap Sun on 3/19/13 said that there would be no toll increases because the toll rates can only be set by the Legislature..and not by the Transportation Commission. Senator Pam Roach spoke at the Transportation Commission’s meeting where they passed the 25-cent toll increase in spite of her telling them that they can’t do so as of March 8.

“Then, 6 days later I received an email from WSDOT Go to Go! which told me of a planned increase on the Tacoma Narrows and 520 Bridge tolls.

It said, ‘The Washington State Transportation Commission is proposing toll rate increases on the Tacoma Narrows and State Route 520 bridges. The commission works with WSDOT to establish toll rates that ensure both bridges generate enough revenue to meet financial obligations.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge proposed rates
The commission is proposing a 25-cent increase to be effective July 1, 2013.’

“So…which is correct ?” Glen asked. “Is there or is there not going to be a toll increase effective July 1?”

The out basket: Annie Johnson of the Good to Go! staff replies, “Sen. Roach’s comments refer to Initiative 1185, which was passed by the voters this past fall. The initiative requires that any new or increased fees be approved by a simple majority of the Legislature.

“According to the Attorney General, tolls are considered a fee and any increase in tolls requires legislative action, which could include delegating the authority to set toll rates back to the commission. The commission’s toll rate proposal includes language stating that the rate increase is subject to the Legislature re-delegating toll rate setting authority back to the commission.”

So what happens July 1 depends on what the lawmakers do before that.


Readers says repave old bridge first

The in basket: When I wrote in a recent column about why the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge will need to be repaved so soon, and the fact the only the new bridge would be done, I got some comments on the Road Warrior blog at kitsapsun.com. Two were certain the old bridge needs a repaving much worse than the new one.

H.W. Slach said, “Drove the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge today and the old one, too. The old one has lots of problems; the new one is great. Stop looking at a calendar and look at the road. If a repaving is done, choose the old bridge when the time comes.”

DAWGFAN063 said, “Have you driven across the old side? The potholes in the center lane almost make the lane unbearable.”

For those who didn’t see the first column, the state said bridges get a thinner layer of asphalt (to reduce weight, I suppose) and need repaving more often than other highways.

I am usually with my wife when I cross the old bridge and use the HOV lane, so I hadn’t noticed the row of rough patches in the centermost of the three general purpose lanes. I didn’t see any potholes when I made it a point to drive it, but it was a pretty rough ride.

The out basket: Chris Keegan of the state’s bridge division, said, “The old bridge received an overlay in 2007 after the new Narrows Bridge was opened. The new Narrows Bridge overlay will be paid for out of bridge tolls, which was the cause for the discussion (about delaying its repaving one biennium to keep tolls low). The old Narrows Bridge overlay will be paid for out of preservation funds which come from gas taxes.

“During the ice storm a little over a year ago the overlay on the Old Narrows Bridge was damaged by the use of tire chains,” he said. “The damage was patched by our maintenance crews.

“We do expect that the old bridge will need another overlay about a year after the new Narrows Bridge.

“Because we can now switch traffic from one bridge to the other to do major projects we will likely do these projects at least a year apart. Being able to take traffic completely off a bridge will make the working conditions much safer for the contractor,” Chris said.


A Narrows bridge repaving – so soon?

The in basket: I’ve read a couple of stories about efforts to avoid or minimize toll increases on the Tacoma Narrow Bridges, and was struck by one proposal from State Sen. Nathan Schlicher to reduce pressure for an increase.

He’s asked that an overlay (repaving) of the bridges be delayed from the next two-year budget cycle to the one after.

Why would the bridges require an overlay at all so soon after the construction of the new one and retrofitting of the old one, I wondered.

The out basket: Annie Johnson of the state toll program, Good to Go!, says, “The asphalt bridge deck overlays on the Tacoma Narrows Bridges are relatively shallow. Shallower overlays, like the one on the bridge, have a typical lifespan of seven to eight years. The new bridge opened in 2007 which means that it would likely need a new overlay in 2014 or 2015.”

Only the new bridge is to be overlaid this time, she said. It’s described in the news stories as a $3 million job.

Keep track of your crossings on toll bridges

The in basket: There was an interesting column by Danny Westneat in the Sunday Seattle Times on Oct. 14 about a woman who was assessed the $40 civil penalty for not paying the toll for a trip she made across the 520 Bridge in Seattle, even though two bills mailed to her were sent back as undeliverable and she never got them..

The law says the toll is owed whether the car owner has been billed or not, not much of a problem for those of us who have transponders and Good to Go! accounts, but a concern of infrequent bridge users without transponders on their vehicles.

I told Annie Johnson of the Good to Go! toll office I thought the public relations damage of such a policy might outweigh the revenue gained.

The out basket: Annie said the woman’s mail had a temporary hold on it, and when the post office’s permitted time for that service expired, the mail was sent back to the sender – to the Good to Go! office in the case of the bills.

So they knew the woman hadn’t gotten the bills. Her mail was getting to her again by the time the penalty notice was sent.

And that can happen to anyone who lets a toll bill go unpaid for 80 days, whether notified of the owed amount or not.

Annie said it is important to expect to pay the toll when crossing the 520 or Tacoma Narrows bridges. Don’t regard it as optional or gamble that your crossing went unnoticed.

If you don’t have a Good to Go! account, find a way to remember the date of the toll incurred, to be aware that there is a problem you need to track down if 14 days go by and you haven’t been billed. There is a separate $40 civil penalty for each unpaid toll.

If you ignore the toll and the civil penalty, you’ll have trouble renewing your license tab. Brad Benfield of the state Department of Licensing says, “The Department of Transportation sends us information about toll violators who meet the parameters for having a hold placed on their vehicle renewal and we flag the record so renewal transactions can’t be processed until the owner pays the tolls and any associated fees or penalties.”

The woman Westneat wrote about paid the $40 as well as the toll, but there are options, Annie said, discussed online at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/GoodToGo/faq.

The options when getting a toll bill and penalty are to pay it, write a letter seeking redress, or going before a judge to plead your case.

If you haven’t seen a bill in the mail two weeks after your vehicle crossed one of the bridges, and your tolls are not paid automatically from a Good to Go! account, you should call customer service at 1-866-936-8246 to find out why not.

Even Good to Go! customers can get a toll bill in the mail, with the same penalties for ignoring it. That Web site said reasons for such a billing include:

– You bought a Good To Go! Sticker Pass at a retail store and did not activate it by opening a Good To Go! account or adding it to an existing account

– Your Good To Go! Pass was not detected and you hadn’t kept current the plate numbers listed on your account.

– Credit card information on your Good To Go! account is not up-to-date.

– Your account does not have enough money in it to pay your tolls.

This all seems to be another incentive for buying a transponder and opening a Good to Go! account, in addition to the extra $2 one pays to pay one’s toll by license plate number.

Avoiding holiday night waits at Tacoma Narrows toll booths

The in basket: I ran info old friend Don Bader at the hardware store a while ago and he wanted me to know about getting charged an extra 25 cents to go through the toll booth at the Tacoma Narrows when he was traveling with a group of antique car owners and joined them in paying their toll that way, rather than getting separated.
I was happy to have an explanation for him on the spot, recalling what I’d been told (twice) by the toll office, that the state didn’t pay to put transponder readers in the toll plaza when they got a different kind of transponder, since so few vehicles with transponders choose to use the toll booths. What he paid was the toll for having his license read, which is 25 cents more if you have a Good to Go! account.
I passed along Good to Go! staffer Annie Johnson’s advice the last time a reader brought this up, that temporarily adding the license numbers of his traveling companions to his Good to Go! account will allow them to avoid having to stop at the toll booths and then rejoin Don and others with transponders beyond the booth.
Gee, said Don, maybe he’ll add the license numbers of his daughters (one of whom I coached as a 6-year-old soccer player years ago) to his account so they won’t have to suffer the lengthy wait to pay their toll at the booths on Thanksgiving and other holidays when hundreds of drivers without transponders try to get home late in the day.
I asked Annie if that’s a good idea, what with holiday season looming.
The out basket: It’s one way to save the long wait, she replied.
“A Good To Go! account holder can have up to six vehicles
(any combination of Pay By Plate and passes) on their account at one time.
“Customers can add or subtract license
plates to their account either online, by phone (866-936-8246) or in-person at a Customer Service Center.  They can cross the bridge any time after adding the plate to (the) account. There is no need to wait.”
Even if Don forgets, a driver without a transponder or plate in the Good to Go! date base can avoid the delay, via “the Pay By Mail option where the
registered owner receives a bill in the mail if they don’t want to stop
at the toll booths,” Annie said. But it’s $6, not the $4.25 had the plate been added to an account.
That would be an attractive option with anyone you suspect might charge a bunch of crossings to your account without your permission before you remember to delete them from your account.

Will Narrows Bridge ever be toll-free?

The in basket: Melinda Knapp asks, “Is there a place where we can see the breakdown on how much has been collected and paid toward the price of building the (Tacoma Narrows) bridge?  Will this toll always be in place or will it be discontinued when the bridge has been ‘paid for’?

The out basket: The plan from the beginning has been for the tolls to retire the bonds that paid for the bridge in 2030, and that the bridge would become toll-free then. That still is the expectation, says Annie Johnson of the state’s Good to Go! toll office.

Projections before the bridge opened were that the toll would be $6 per crossing by 2016 and stay there through 2030, but that didn’t differentiate between various kinds of tolls, and may not have even envisioned license plate tolling. And as we have seen, raising the tolls is a political process involving a citizens committee and the state Transportation Commission.

“We do post quarterly financial statements for all our toll facilities online,” Annie said. “You and your readers can find the Tacoma Narrows Bridge financial statements online at  http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Tolling/TNBTolling/TNBLibrary.htm.