When the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge opens for service in 2007, drivers who sign up for the Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system will be able to pass through the west side toll plaza at highway speeds. That’s got to be good news for anyone who commutes into Tacoma or has reason to cross the bridge on a frequent basis.

Here’s how it will work: Those who wish to take advantage of the ETC system will require a “transponder.” David Pope, Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll system manager, explains the technology this way. “The transponder sends the customer transponder number (via radio) to a computer at the toll plaza, which records transaction information such as time, date, and the number of axles on the vehicle.”

Why would the WSDOT care how many axles a vehicle has? Because the Washington State Transportation Commission may wish to introduce variable tolls in the future. When the bridge opens, the $3 toll (eastbound only) will apply to cars, trucks and motorcycles. Assuming the Transportation Commission approves, the $3 toll is scheduled to increase to $4 in 2010, $5 in 2013 and so forth until the year 2030, when the $800 million debt will be retired.

Once the customer information has been collected from the passing vehicle, the data will be sent to a second computer where $3 will be subtracted from the customer’s account. Details remain under discussion, but Pope indicates that a minimum balance of $50 (give or take) will be required. When the account balance falls to a predetermined level, the fund will automatically renew itself by charging a set amount to the driver’s credit card. That’s the preferred method in so far as WSDOT is concerned, and based on input from potential customers, they believe it will be the most popular approach.

Service centers will be established on both sides of the Narrows where customers can open accounts, obtain transponders, and take care of related issues.

Transponders will be available in two sizes, a thin credit-card-sized sticker appropriate for most passenger cars, and a larger unit for commercial vehicles. And, according to Pope, “Transponders will be available within the six-month period prior to the opening.”

But what about security? Pope responds this way. “If you lose your transponder, or someone steals it, there is no personal data that can be stripped out of it. Then, if you report it, we’ll turn the device off so no one else can use it.”

What if you don’t want “no blanketyblank transponder” cluttering up the windshield of your shiny Lexus, 15-yearold mud-splattered pick-up truck, or tricked-out Harley? The answer is simple… Plan on stopping at one of the toll booths, and make sure that you have U.S. currency, or a traveler’s check. The policy regarding personal checks is up in the air — and debit cards are a no-no. (WSDOT won’t have the necessary infrastructure to support them.)

Finally, some advice for those who would like to blow through the toll plaza without paying: Don’t. Something called a photo enforcement system will take a picture of your license plate and send you a bill. And, if you persist, handling charges will be added to your bill and the Washington State Patrol will send you a citation.

So, if you cross the bridge 240 days per year (260 working days minus 20 days of vacation/legal holidays), be prepared to pay $720 per year in tolls. But not during power outages, right? That’s when the fancy technology goes belly-up and we cross the bridge for free, you think? Wrong. “We have backup batteries,” Pope said with a smile, “and a backup generator, too!”

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