Senate approves fine for drivers who skip bridge toll

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) - People who skip the $3 toll when the new Tacoma Narrows bridge opens could be fined $49, which would raise as much as $6.7 million in the first year, based on state estimates that 1,800 people a day won't pay the toll.

The estimates were provided by the Washington State Patrol, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Department of Transportation, which were asked to examine the effects of a proposed $49 fine on people who dodge the toll.

The amount of the fine is part of Senate Bill 5391, which the state Senate approved Friday on a 38-9 vote. The bill now goes to the House.

Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said he sponsored the bill because he wanted part of the fines to go toward paying off the new $849 million bridge. The $49 fine would include a $9 surcharge - three times the expected $3 toll - that would be used for that purpose.

"Every dollar we can add to the tolling account will reduce the amount of money honest drivers must pay in tolls," Kilmer said.

He expects the surcharge to raise between $15 million and $20 million - only a fraction of the $800 million that was borrowed to build the bridge. Toll payers are expected to pay more than $2 billion through 2030.

The new bridge is expected to open in August, with an initial toll of $3 on eastbound lanes only, increasing to $6 in 10 years.

The State Patrol assumes that 10 percent of the drivers who cross the bridge in the express lane that first year won't have purchased an electronic tag for paying the toll. They would be caught on camera and sent a $49 ticket.

Transportation officials looked at the experiences of other states to come up with the 10 percent figure, although Department of Transportation spokeswoman Janet Matkin said her agency expects the figure to drop quickly to about 3 percent as people get accustomed to the system.

Ticket fines could produce a one-year windfall for Pierce County District Court, which would get $40 of each fine for an estimated total of $5.5 million that first year. Failure to pay the toll would be treated like a parking ticket, not as a moving violation. It wouldn't go on a driver's record.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said he voted against the bill because the use of cameras for traffic enforcement "has creeped into several bills this year - one for construction zones, one for tolling facilities. Where is it going to end?"

"They generate a lot of tickets that generate a lot of money," he said of the camera cops. "It's like a slot machine on the highway for the local jurisdictions."

Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, said cameras are used for safety.

"There's always the possibility of people going through without paying their fair share," he said. "This photo enforcement option can be done without stopping the flow of traffic. If you had cops there trying to catch everyone, it would shut down traffic."

The use of cameras for traffic enforcement on the Narrows Bridge was approved by the Legislature several years ago, said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "This simply cleans up existing law," she said.

The same fine $40 plus three times the amount of the toll also would apply to Highway 167 between Auburn and Renton, where the state is going to let solo drivers buy their way into the car-pool lanes if they pay a toll. That may start in 2009.
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