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.