Tag Archives: tolls

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.”

Variations in toll roads puzzle a newcomer

The in basket: David McGarvey of Poulsbo writes, “I’m a little new to the area and don’t understand something:  Why are tolls collected on some state highways (such as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the 520 bridge) but not on other sections of state highways?  Thanks for enlightening me.”

The out basket:  I don’t know where David has been living that a mix of tolled and non-tolled highways would seem unusual. I’ve driven in several cities around the nation that have toll booths on turnpikes and freeways with non-tolled roads nearby. And the two examples he chooses are bridges, which are among the most common facilities to have tolls and have been for decades.

Before Oregon couldn’t get Washington state to go along in replacing the I-5 crossing of the Columbia River, it was to be replaced by a toll bridge. There was talk eight years ago about using tolls for the improvements being done to I-90 around Snoqualmie Pass, says Claudia Bingham Baker of the state Department of Transportation, but to her knowledge, “no one has discussed the issue since,” she said.

I would understand better if David had asked why tolling is becoming more common on regular highways.

For most of our history, tolls were necessary to get the tolled facility built. That certainly was true of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and Bremerton’s Warren Avenue Bridge originally had tolls.

More recently, tolls have been imposed as a congestion-relief strategy, allowing  single-occupant vehicles to use the HOV lanes on some highways, for a fee, notably highways 167 and 405 in King County.

Tolls also are viewed as a way to offset diminished gas tax funding, which has fallen prey to reduced gasoline consumption by smaller cars and the ebb and flow in how much people drive. Electoral and legislative decisions have also eroded tax sources for building highways.

Where you see tolls, it will be on a recently built or revised bridge or highway. My guess is they’ll be much more common in coming years. They have the benefit of exempting people who don’t use the facility from having to pay for it

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.

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.

 

Toll-paying troubles illustrate changes at Narrows Bridge

The in basket: Lance Kanski had some trouble paying his toll to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge this fall and sought help from Road Warrior readers on the Road Warrior blog at kitsapsun.com.

“I received two infractions for the same reason,” he said, “one for my truck , one for my motorcycle. Both have transponders. I stopped at the toll booth with my motorcycle to make sure the transponder worked, and it did not. It was the first time I had tried to use that transponder.

“The booth dude told me. don’t worry, it will read your plate and debit your account. What is the outcome on the infractions? Do I have to pay the $52 fines? Anyone?”
The out basket: Janet Matkin, the voice of the Good to Go! toll office since its inception in 2006, fielded this question on her last day on the job before joining the state Association of Cities. She said, “If the license plate number is on the account, then the vehicle can be identified by the license plate and their Good To Go! account will be charged the toll. With the start of photo tolling on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on December 3, the vehicle would be charged the Pay By Plate rate, which is 25 cents more than the transponder rate ($3 for a two-axle vehicle).

However, if you have a transponder and it isn’t reading properly, you should stop by the customer service center and have it replaced,” she said. “Then you’ll be charged the $2.75 rate.

“Also, there are no more $52 fines,” Janet said,” if you bypass the toll booths. Instead, if you don’t have a Good To Go! account and don’t stop at the toll booths, the registered owner of the vehicle will be mailed a toll bill for $5.50.”

Annie Johnson of the Good to Go! office stepped in after Janet had left and I asked whether Lance would have to pay his two $52 fines from before the recent changes.

 

“Our records show that the (tickets)  were issued because neither license plate number was on the Good To Go!  account ,” Annie said, “and thus we couldn’t associate the license plate numbers with an account.

“Mr. Kanski should receive dismissal letters in the mail once the tickets are dismissed (meaning he won’t have to pay the two $52 fines). The Good To Go! toll rate of $2.75 was posted to his account for each of the two toll transactions.”

 

“(This) case is a good reminder to folks to keep their account information (including license plates) up to date,” Annie said. “If the license plates had been listed on his account, we could have matched it up that way and he wouldn’t have received any (infractions).

“As Janet noted, as of December 3 we no longer issue (notices of infraction). If this situation were to occur now, we would issue a photo tolling bill instead of the fine.”

 

Photo enforcement of tolls brings inquiry

The in basket: Charles Baker of Silverdale writes, “I’ve seen a good deal written about the proposals moving along toward cameras being used to photograph license numbers of  those who don’t use the toll booth and don’t have ‘Good to Go!’ stickers.

“All I’ve read indicates the Tacoma Narrows Bridge authority feels they will have no problem looking up license numbers and billing those drivers for the toll – and problem payers can be dealt with come renewal time.

“What I have read nothing about is how well this system will work for drivers with out-of-Washington-state plates. Do visitors and those military out-of-staters get a free pass?  I doubt the other states (and countries) are setting up a ‘help Washington’ program to identify these people.  Any discussion of this issue you’ve heard?”

While I was inquiring, I asked about plates too dirty to be read, as well.

The out basket: Janet Matkin, the state’s tolls communication manager, replies, “We have reciprocal agreements with all the other states to obtain the name and address of out-of-state drivers.

“We take photos of both front and back license plates, in order to ensure we get a clear image of the majority of license plates,” she also said.

Thanksgiving night at the Narrows Bridges

The in basket: I was surprised to read in a letter to the editor from Jackie Miller of Port Orchard in the Dec. 2 edition that the traffic waiting at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll booths Thanksgiving night had filled the toll plaza and backed up perhaps as far as Mullenix Road in South Kitsap.

I knew Thanksgiving and Christmas had disproportionately high numbers of bridge crossers without transponders who would have to use the toll booths, but I didn’t know it was anywhere near that bad.

Jackie was able to observe the backup while going the other way rather than crawling along in it, but said members of her family will face it after coming to her house for Christmas. She suggested the state give drivers a “wonderful gift” of no tolls on those two high impact days.

I asked Janet Matkin of the Good to Go! toll collection office if it really was that bad, and whether anything like toll-free days had been discussed to address it. 

The out basket: Janet said her information is that traffic did back up out of the toll plaza area into the through lanes, but only as far as Burnham Drive, fives miles back. Delays of 40 minutes were reported.

She guessed that any slowing of traffic north of there resulted from the temporary 40 mph speed zone and narrowed lanes at the Olalla-Burley interchange project site.

Thanksgiving wasn’t as bad as the previous Thanksgiving, she said. That was the worst day so far, and a thousand fewer vehicles used the bridge this Thanksgiving than last. I’d bet the 2007 backup taught many to go through Shelton on the holiday this year.

“It seems that this is the most concentrated time for non-Good To Go! vehicles to use the bridge,” Janet said. “On other holidays those returning from the peninsula are more spread out throughout the day, rather than concentrated in a five-hour window.  About two-thirds of the traffic used the manual toll lanes during the peak hours from 6-11 p.m. 

She’s heard no talk about changing the collection of tolls on that day, she said.

But state traffic management and highway patrol officials did see it coming and “closely monitored conditions to keep traffic moving smoothly,” she said.

They had all toll lanes operating at the peak and opened the eastbound HOV lanes that begin at the Olympic interchange to all vehicles with transponders, she said.

They put out holiday traffic alerts suggesting that using Gig Harbor’s streets to get to the transponder-only 24th Street on-ramp to the bridge was an option if the backup at the toll booths slowed the freeway lanes for everybody.

They warned drivers via electronic signs along the freeway and via advisory radio that there would be long backups that night, including traffic heading westbound early in the day that would be returning later, she said.
There were no backups reported for the remainder of the weekend, Janet said.

A new day in toll collecting Saturday

The in basket: Saturday is the day that highway tolls in our state take the next big leap forward, when congestion-pricing tolls offer single-occupant vehicles access to the HOV lanes between Renton and Auburn on Highway 167.
Between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. seven days a week, a car with the same transponder that works to pay one’s toll to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge will let a driver alone in his car pay to use the HOV lanes, called HOT lanes in this case. The price will range from 50 cents to $9, depending on how badly the highway is congested. The Web site suggests the typical rush hour price will be around $5. Signs along the freeway will announce the toll at any given moment.
Shields that sell for $3.50 can be affixed to a transponder to keep it from being read in cars with more than one occupant, buses, vans, etc., which are entitled to use the lanes for free. The shields have to be removed to cross the Narrows Bridge, or when a driver is alone and wants to use the HOT lanes. They are velcroed to the inside of the windshield and somehow interrupt the connection between the transponder and overhead reader without actually being between them.
If you are a bridge user and have a transponder, don’t just ignore that e-mail you got this week from the Good to Go! toll program about the HOT lanes. Janet Matkin of that office says they’ll use a “customer-friendly manner” in dealing with drivers who get tolled because they forgot or didn’t understand the shield when they hit Highway 167, but they won’t easily reverse the toll.
Janet says about 5,000 of the shields have been bought. She didn’t know how many of those are mainly Narrows Bridge users.
There is a lot of information on a state Web site as to how it will all work, with the obligatory Frequently Asked Questions section. But, wouldn’t you know it, I had some questions that must not be frequently asked, but that I bet will enter the minds of dozens of drivers every day.
For example, I wonder how long a toll collection is good for. If a person pulls off in Kent for half an hour, will he be charged again to continue on in the HOT lanes, or will the original toll cover him when he returns to the freeway? How about if he returns to go back the other way? What if he forgot to stop at a previous interchange and goes back, then retraces his path in the original direction?
Will a HOT lane trip to go to dinner in the evening require a new toll if the car was accessed tolls on a trip to work and back earlier in the day?
The out basket: Patty Rubstello of the HOT lanes project says most of my theoretical situations will require paying the toll more than once. Certainly a new toll must be paid to change directions and go back in the HOT lane. A toll for travel in one direction will be good for the 20 minutes or so it is expected to take a HOT lane driver the length of the corridor, about a dozen miles, she said. A half-hour stop in Kent would use that up and incur a new toll to return to the HOT lanes.
Unlike on he Narrows Bridge, the driver of a transponder-equipped car will see a white light flash each time he passes beneath a reader, even if the toll is collected only once. That’s more to tell enforcement officers that the toll has been paid than to comfort the driver, Patty said.