In Olympia: Jesse Young hopes Narrows Bridge drivers soon can have a cup of joe with their tolls

OLYMPIA — One of the legislative accomplishments touted by Rep. Jesse Young following the last session of the Washington State Legislature was his work to keep tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge from rising and — he hopes — reducing those fares in the near future.

Young and his allies were able to negotiate in the state House a one-time $2.5 million budget allocation from the motor-vehicle fund to the Tacoma bridge fund, a one-time investment, he said, to keep toll costs from rising.

The 26th Legislative District Republican has a novel plan to remove the patchwork financial band-aids that currently fund the bridge’s bond debt service. His idea, if implemented, would not only pay off the bridge debt, but fund future maintenance of the vital Highway 16 lifeline between Kitsap and Pierce counties.

Young’s bill, better known as the “Toll by Coffee Act,” was passed by both state legislative bodies last session, only to be excised at the last minute from the state’s transportation budget.

Mechanics of the plan

Here’s how Young’s idea would work: His bill, HB 2717, would allow the state Department of Transportation to seek bids from the private sector to take over toll-booth operations at the Narrows bridge.

The private operator would pay for the employees to work at the toll booth, who also could sell coffee, or other sundry items, at the same time the bridge tolls are collected.

The revenue from leasing toll operations to a private sector vender, and a percentage of the sales generated at the toll booths, would eliminate the need for the WDOT to pay $6 million a year on bridge operations.

“Not only would we save $6 million, we would start to accrue revenue because we can charge leasing fees in exchange for letting them sell their wares,” Young said.

“We’ve reached out to companies such as Starbucks and 7-Eleven and McDonalds, who are possible vendors.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, however, was cool to the idea.

“Unfortunately, the governor — with no justification given how much support there was for it — section-vetoed out the provision that would have gotten this started,” he said of the bill.

“The governor never once reached out to me, never sought to understand it better, and waited until the eleventh-hour to call me” and deliver the bad news.

“I think the veto was politically motivated because they didn’t want me to have a win going into my election.”

Young said he’ll once again take his plan in front of legislators this session, as well as area chambers of commerce, WDOT, the state’s Transportation Commission and other governmental bodies.

While the “have a coffee while you pay your toll” concept may be novel, the general concept of private enterprise working side-by-side with state transportation agencies to generate revenue is hardly new.

In many areas of the Midwest and along the East Coast, Young said, turnpikes feature food plazas where drivers can turn off the road, buy food and drinks from private businesses and familiar chains, then reenter the traffic with ease. While drivers can leave the roadway, they still are on the turnpike grid and can’t escape paying their tolls.

Young said he became familiar with the concept while a student at the University of Notre Dame. He said a number of “turn-parks” dot the turnpike from South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago.

The state legislator’s plan takes the concept a step further by equipping a toll booth employee to sell a ready-made cup of coffee as a motorist is paying the toll fee.

It all would happen at the same time, without the driver needing to leave the car. He said the technology exists today to make that happen, and has been demonstrated in Italy.

There are some obvious obstacles to the plan, such as ensuring busy drivers can quickly move through the toll-booth queue. Young said that’s one of the provisions that vendors will have to meet. The toll takers also must accept payment for the toll, even if it doesn’t include a cup of coffee.

Young also said that Starbucks has a phone app where drivers can order their coffee prior to leaving the house, then quickly pick up their coffee without waiting. He said that would work with his concept, which would include a reader board where drivers would be directed to a specific lane.

Those drivers who use “Good To Go” sensors would continue to drive through the toll plaza without stopping. And, he said, drivers also could pay their fee at a booth dedicated just for road tolls.

Young believes the concept would be attractive to retail vendors like Starbucks.

“Take the most profitable Starbucks in the area, then quadruple the number of customers it gets. That’s what you’d have with this coffee stand,” he said.

State government moves at a snail’s pace, he acknowledged, and it might take a while for the concept to become reality. “If need be, I’ll advocate for a bill allowing the WDOT to do a study of the concept,” Young said.

He said he prefers to get the provision worked into the transportation bill this session.

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