Start of tolling may speed up 520 commute

 Start of tolling may speed up 520 commute

Yes, you’ll have to pay to drive across the Highway 520 bridge, starting Thursday. The upside is that your commute may move a little faster.

On the other hand, if you head over to Interstate 90 to avoid the new toll, your drive across Lake Washington may take longer than it used to.

That’s the word from the state Department of Transportation, which is gearing up for the Dec. 29 launch of tolls on the 520 bridge — tolls that will cost drivers $3.50 to cross during peak hours as a pass on their windshield is read electronically.

More than 100,000 cars drive across the 520 bridge on a typical weekday. Craig Stone, toll-division director for the state DOT, said Thursday that once traffic picks up after the holidays and tolls are in place, about 20,000 of those trips are expected to divert to I-90, some 5,000 likely will shift to Highway 522 around the north end of the lake, and 15,000 either will switch to transit (public transit and registered van pools are exempt from tolls) or choose not to make the trip at all.

That means extra traffic on I-90 will slow traffic on that bridge by about 5 to 10 mph, while on Highway 520, fewer cars there will speed traffic by up to 20 mph, according to DOT.

All of this is based on computer modeling. State officials say they can’t know the traffic picture for sure until tolls take effect.

As of the end of last week, only 20 percent of trips across 520 were by vehicles with good to go passes installed. The state is trying to get 70 percent or more of drivers to both buy and install the pass — which will automatically debit from an account — in time for the first few days of tolling.

To activate the passes, drivers should go to, include license-plate information and put at least $30 on their account — about a 10-minute process, according to DOT.

The fact that many drivers haven’t yet bought the cards is not unusual, Stone said. when the state began tolling the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, just 20 percent of the drivers had the passes the day before tolling began. within days, 72 percent had passes, Stone said.

“Everyone waited till the last minute,” he said.

It’s not exactly a revelation that many drivers will seek a free route instead of the 520.

A state financial study released in September found that tolls on Highway 520 would cut traffic in half, dropping to 52,000 vehicles per day as drivers divert to I-90, avoid trips or shift to transit.

The study found trips wouldn’t rebound to today’s levels until 2032.

Fewer cars on the bridge could hurt the state’s mission to use the tolls to help pay for a new 520. But State Treasurer Jim McIntire has said he is confident that tolling can support at least $1 billion in bonds for the $4.65 billion crossing.

The state has sold 30-year bonds worth $550 million. so the tolls will last at least until 2032, Stone said.

The advent of tolling has led Metro and Sound Transit to add 130 trips each day across the bridge.

A bus crosses the bridge every two minutes on weekdays, carrying a total of 18,000 daily riders, said Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke.

The most-popular destinations? Eastbound it’s Microsoft, Thielke said, and westbound it’s Amazon.

Four ways to pay

Tolls will vary by time of day, with the busiest times being the costliest. for drivers with a good to go sticker, it will cost $3.50 to cross the bridge during peak commuting hours. Weekend afternoons will cost $2.20; overnight there will be no charge. Tolls will be higher for trucks and trailers. a three-axle vehicle with a state toll sticker would pay $5.25 each way during peak times, for instance.

There are four ways to pay:

• good To go pass, which is the cheapest way.

• Pay by plate. Drivers can register as many as six license-plate numbers on a prepaid account. No vehicle pass is required. The machine will read the plates, and the crossing will cost an extra 25 cents. this is for people who may be regular commuters but have other cars — perhaps driven by children — that cross 520 only occasionally.

• Pay by mail. for vehicles without passes, license-plate numbers are read electronically and a bill sent to the vehicle owner. this rate is $1.50 higher than the good to go rate.

• Short-term account. these are for people who might be in town for a short time and can set up a 14-day, or shorter, account on a credit card. It costs an extra $1 but is still cheaper than pay by mail.

People who cross without a pass and fail to respond to a mailed bill will be rebilled in 30 days for an extra $5. If that goes unpaid another 50 days, a notice of civil penalty will be issued, similar to a parking ticket, for $40 plus accumulated tolls and fees. a private, state-contracted collection agency then contacts the motorist, who will not be able to renew Washington state license tabs without paying up.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Information in this article, originally published Dec. 22, 2011, was corrected Dec. 23, 2011. a previous version of the information box with this story incorrectly stated that walk-in centers, where people can buy toll passes, would be closed Saturday, Dec. 24 and Sunday, Dec. 25 (Christmas Day). The centers will be open Saturday, but closed Christmas Day. The state Department of Transportation had provided incorrect information.

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