Monthly Archives: March 2012

DOT emails, cameras bring wrecks to you

Through the miracle of technology, I was able to hear about a wreck on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge via an email alert sent by DOT, then go to the DOT website and see a picture of a blown-over mobile home blocking the two right lanes. I texted my kid and warned him in case he was over in Tacoma. I know none of this is cutting-edge stuff, but it’s amazing what I can do now that I couldn’t not that many years ago. It’s darn useful for a reporter, and hopefully for others.

There’s a string of cameras all the way from Purdy to the bridge, and beyond. I use those a lot, because we write about accidents in that fringe of our coverage area, plus it’s part of my commute. It’d be cool to have more cameras in Kitsap, but we don’t really need them. There are a few at each ferry dock, a string between Poulsbo and the Hood Canal Bridge to check backups from bridge openings, and one just south of Gorst at Highway 3 and Christopherson Road. I have no idea why it’s there.

When I get an email saying the Hood Canal Bridge is opening, sometimes I go to the camera to see if it’s a submarine, but they turn off the camera for security reasons.

Cameras are part of fixing the clog on I-5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Emergency crews can use them to see what kind of mess they’re responding to, and people can check traffic before leaving to see if they might want to wait or take a different route. DOT’s website now also features travel times between Olympia and Tacoma, a stretch that carries 132,000 cars a day. Earlier this month, DOT began using ramp meters at Marvin, Nisqually and Mounts roads to space out traffic as it enters I-5. It’s the same idea they had for Highway 16 and why the cameras and ramp meters were installed in the Gig Harbor area. When the new bridge opened, however, they didn’t need them anymore.

The joint-base ramp meters, traffic cameras and online information were part of a $2.5 million project to improve traffic near there. More improvements are on the way. DOT recently got a $15 million grant to install more ramp meters, new signals and widen shoulders to allow cars to drive on them between on- and off-ramps during peak commute hours.

Legislators, Boss pushing to reduce Narrows bridge reserve fund

The Washington State Transportation Commission will propose toll increases for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Tuesday, and the amount will hinge on whether it wants a big reserve fund. Chances are, it will, because the fund was its idea.
In March 2010, it adopted a policy that 12.5 percent of annual bridge costs must be kept in reserve to cover revenue shortfalls and cost increases. After being pressed on the policy, it got confirmation from the state Attorney General’s Office in January that it was within it’s legal authority.
Randy Boss disagrees, claiming the reserve fund is neither necessary nor legal. That’s no surprise, considering he’s challenged nearly everything to do with the bridge for a decade. But 26th District legislators back him up.
Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said he and Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, didn’t like the idea from the start, and told the commission so. If the bridge was built using toll revenue bonds, backed exclusively by tolls, that’d be one thing. But the bonds are paid through the state Motor Vehicle Fund, and are backed by the full faith and credit of the state.
“There has not been a risk that we’re going to default on making payments,” Kilmer said. “The notion that you would have this giant reserve, particularly at a time when folks are really hurting, just doesn’t make sense. I know a lot of families that would like to have a 12 1/2 percent reserve in their savings accounts, but that’s not the reality of this time. My hope is there’s a sensitivity to that reality.”
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge citizen advisory committee, which grudgingly accepts the reserve fund but doesn’t treat 12.5 percent as a firm number, last week recommended toll increases from $2.75 to $3.65 for electronic payment, $4 to $5 at the toll booths and $5.50 to $7 for pay by mail. Those rates would generate a reserve of about 9.3 percent.
The Transportation Commission says cash flows and expenses vary month to month, and there are times when reserve funds are needed to cover costs. Unforeseen disruptions to tolling operations or traffic volumes can stop or significantly reduce toll revenues, but debt payment obligations never go away.
“Traffic loss due to weather, a rate increase, natural disasters, or other events on the Highway 16 corridor that could hinder or stop traffic on the bridge are real threats that cannot be ignored,” said a statement from executive director Reema Griffith.
Seaquist thinks 12.5 percent is too much.
“We should slice that reserve account as thin as possible,” he said. “It is more important to keep tolls low to keep our local businesses open and our low-income citizens able to use the bridge to get to the doctor or to school or to work.”
Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, said because of fines being dismissed and other problems from switching to a new statewide tolling system, she can’t tell how the bridge is doing financially.
“Until many of these questions are answered to the satisfaction of the CAC (citizen advisory committee), I do not believe any toll prices should be raised,” she said. “We need good data to make good decisions.”
The Legislature passed a Kilmer bill last week, deferring sales taxes on construction of the bridge for six more years and saving about $5.8 million per year in needed toll revenue. That, combined with eliminating the reserve fund, would make a toll increase for July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013 unnecessary, Boss said. At the end of that period, there would be $3.3 million left in the bridge account.
“There’d be no reason to raise the toll,” Boss said. “We’d have $3 million left in the bank if we don’t have to hit the sufficient minimum balance, and the sufficient minimum balance is illegal.”

The way the process works, the Transportation Commission views the citizen group’s recommendation as the low point, discusses whether it’s enough, but usually accepts it or inches it up. In this case, they might bump the electronic rate from the recommended $3.65 to $3.75 and get a little closer to their 12.5 percent goal. I don’t think they’ll eliminate their reserve policy, though, and there’ll be no opportunity to testify for that at the meeting. But there will be at April public meetings in Gig Harbor and Port Orchard and a final hearing May 21.

Transportation voice ferry support to governor

The transportation bill signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire last week didn’t include Rep. Drew Hansen’s proviso that the Legislature intends to fully fund ferries through the 2013-15 biennium. That got stripped out at the last moment. But the governor will still see it.

Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, and other ferry community lawmakers got the two Transportation Committee chairs — Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island — to write a joint letter to Gregoire, which they did on Wednesday.

“We are writing today to ask that you consider notifying Washington State Ferries that it is the Legislature’s intent to appropriate funding for the ferries in the 2013-15 biennium at a level sufficient to maintain current ferry routes and schedules at existing levels, and directing WSF to conduct public outreach consistent with the Legislature’s intent to maintain routes and schedules at existing levels,” the letter reads.

The chairwomen said they were writing to leave no doubt about their commitment to a stable ferry system.

Ferries giving little cars laser treatment

Washington State Ferries, which created a discounted fare last year for cars 14 feet and shorter, now has a laser system to measure them. If you own a Mini Cooper, Mazda Miada or one of dozens of small cars, go to the ferry dock early and have it zapped to confirm the length. If car is less than 14 feet, you’ll get a windshield sticker and it’ll never have to be measured again.

The discount is being phased in over three years and will ultimately be 30 percent less than standard vehicles (14 to 22 feet). This first year, which began Oct. 1, regular car-and-driver fare is $12.75 one way in the Central Sound. It’s $11.50 for small cars. Even more reason for me to run out and buy a little roadster.

Amendment would protect ferry service until summer 2014

Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, got an amendment included in the House transportation budget Monday that would keep ferry service at its current level through the 2013-15 budget cycle, which ends June 30, 2014.
Hansen, Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, and four other House members from ferry communities wrote to the House Transportation Committee requesting the provision.
The bill passed the House 82-16 and moves to the Senate.
The amendment reads, “It is the intent of the Legislature to appropriate funding to the Washington State Ferries Division in the 2013-15 biennium at a level sufficient to maintain current ferry routes and schedules at existing levels. The Washington State Ferries Division must conduct any public outreach consistent with the policy direction provided in this subsection to maintain current ferry routes and schedules at existing levels.”
Hansen said the amendment would be hard to get around.
“There are other safeguards that would make it very, very hard to ignore,” he said. “Under RCW 47.60.330, the ferry system has to consult with affected ferry users by public hearing before any substantial change to service levels. In addition, legislative approval is required to eliminate or add a ferry route; the governor and his/her ferry system can’t cut a whole route without legislative approval. So because my language requires all outreach be consistent with maintaining service, they obviously can’t be conducting any outreach about cutting service … which means that, in effect, it would be hard for them to cut.”
Hansen also sponsored an amendment that requires the Department of Transportation to maintain passenger-only ferry and transit service as part of any modifications at Colman Dock in Seattle.
The supplemental transportation budget is Engrossed Substitute House Bill 2190.