SR-520 Tolling Options
SR-520 Tolling Options

On 10/10/10, WSDOT will be the first state DOT in the country to toll a existing facility that is currently untolled. A few months ago the state legislature passed ESHB 2211, authorizing the tolling of SR-520. The writing has been on the wall for a while, but still the fact that it passed is no less amazing. For comparison’s sake, not even NYC has stepped up to toll previously untolled bridges or tunnels into Manhattan. Toll on SR-520 has significant, and I believe overlooked implications for tolling in our region.


WSDOT in partnership with KC Metro and PSCR won USDOT funding, and due to the Legislature’s actions will receive a $154 million dollar Urban Partnership grant. The Urban Partnership program aims to reduce congestion through the four T’s:

  • Transit ($41 million for buses and P&R expansion, $27 million or ferries)
  • Tolling ($63 million for installation and construction of tolling system)
  • Technology ($23 million for ATMS)
  • Telecommuting ($0, build off of existing TDM program)

During the 2008 legislative session, the state tasked the partner agencies to go out to the public, propose tolling options, and report back. The work, documented here, surprisingly showed that 60% of those questioned (statistically significant phone interview) support tolling SR-520 to pay for a new bridge. This support went up when respondents were told that tolls would be collected electronically and that it would reduce congestion on the bridge. A majority of users also supported tolling I-90, however I-90 users strongly disapproved. Stated differently, a majority of users support tolling existing cross-lake travel on multiple facilities to pay for a new bridge with zero new general purpose capacity. Almost feels like the outer limits right?


I can’t overstate how significant I think this will be for tolling in the central Puget Sounds. SR-520 is at the focal point of forces that until now have not come together. In my opinion this will set a precedent, serving as a perfect example of the benefits of tolls while hinting at how system wide tolling might become a reality.

First off, SR-520 is one of the most congested corridors in the region and it becomes more congested each year. The current congestion is important because drivers will immediately get something for their tolls. While funding a new bridge, tolls will manage demand and improve travel times. PSRC models show that the average travel speed will increase from the current 26 mph to 40 mph. SR-520 tolling will demonstrate what all the transportation wonks know: that demand is elastic. This will confirm our knowledge about the effects of tolls on travel behavior and give the general public a real life example of demand elasticity.

Next, the state and federal governments are broke. Existing funding sources are generating less revenue than expected and many previously funded projects are being deferred each year. Increasing the gas tax is unpalatable (and in the long run a poor funding source) and you all know the history of car tabs. Tolls are the only remaining funding source that has not already been tapped. As in most things, money is the real kicker. The region’s transportation system has been broken and underfunded for decades, but only after project funds dry up do politicians look at a solution that reduces congestion while funding projects at the same time.

While travel demand management and project funding are why tolling new facilities is almost guaranteed, the expansion of tolling to existing facilities and eventually to a system wide level will probably be spurred on by the simple fact that our major road infrastructures comes in pairs (SR-520 and I-90, I-5 and SR-99, I-5 and I-205, etc). In isolation it is hard to make a case for tolling existing infrastructure, but when a road just a few miles away is tolled the case for tolling both, and treating the transportation system like an actual system becomes much stronger.

Although not part of the tolling bill, tolls on I-90 are essential for full SR-520 funding as you can see above. I believe the absence of tolls on I-90 is due to political pressure from I-90 users and an unwillingness on the part of everyone that wants tolling to push too much before the effects of only tolling SR-520 are known. The major fight was to get tolls to fund improved transit service. While I was in Olympia for the first reading of this bill, the Mayor of Mercer Island said that models of diversion from SR-520 to I-90 are “within the margin or error [of no change]”. I have a hard time believing that tolls of roughly 7 dollars a day are within the margin of error for most of us non-millionaires. Although the models are fairly sound it is my understanding that they were based on survey data. Essentially people who use the bridges were asked how tolls would affect their travel behavior. I don’t know how tolls will affect my use of the bridge and I don’t think most people know either. So needless to say, I don’t trust these model inputs. What I do trust is my common sense, and even though I can see SR-520 from my window (and my dad lives in Kirkland), I would likely take I-90 more often than I do now.

I see the effects of SR-520 cascading through the transportation system. SR-520 is the first domino to fall and I-90 is close behind. If significant diversion occurs, which is very possible, tolling I-90 to reduce diversion is the only possible solution. Similarly, SR-99 will be tolled in one form or another when the tunnel is built. I-5 will then face the same effects as I-90 and the call to toll I-5 won’t sound so wacky anymore. Moreover I-5 might also need to be tolled to fully fund the SR-99 tunnel. Where would tolls on I-5 start and end? What about I-405 or SR-509? What about other freeways? No one knows the answer, but each newly tolled facility will make the case for system wide tolling more appealing and obvious. At some point enough people will be paying tolls that it will be seen as unfair if other freeway corridors are not tolled.

Just a few years ago tolling was a taboo idea that greens and transit boosters could only dream about. Times sure have changed. Looking to the future, system wide tolling, the holy grail of transportation management and funding, not only looks possible, it actually looks like a practical and politically acceptable solution to our congestions and transportation funding problems.

58 Replies to “The Perfect Storm: 520 Tolling”

  1. Huh?

    I seem to remember paying a toll to cross 520… at least that’s what I think I was doing when I stopped at the toll plaza and threw money in the chute.

      1. They should’ve tolled I-90 as well – the absense is a great example of politics trumping sound financial practice.

        FWIW, they likely will do as soon as the post 520 tolling balloons I-90 useage.

      2. Yeah but this would make it much easier for the politicians to say see we need to toll parallel facilities. In some ways it could be good in the long run because they would then try to avoid making this mistake again.

  2. Well then if tolling is such a great a method of funding, I’m hoping that this blog will support the surcharge/toll for crossing the I-90 bridge. Bicycles too, at a reduced rate of course.

    Yes that’s snarky, but wait, it’s no worse than the 2 zone surcharge we impose now on bus travel. And if it increases the revenue sufficiently so that we can build more rail lines, I’m sure you all would support it.

    1. Tolling I-90 as I pointed out is necessary for full funding of SR-520 reconstruction. Tolling bicyclist and pedestrians is a crazy idea, far from the very likely possibility of tolling I-90. That is just reality.

    2. Gary, you’re getting close to trolling here. Of course we support tolling both structures.

      1. Hi Ben,
        I don’t mean to “troll” this blog, what I mean is that in order to fund the bridges, maintenance, replacement, etc. we should spread the cost among all users.

        As a bicyclist, I’d pay to ride across the 520 bridge if it meant that there would be a bike lane. As a transit user, I should also pay to ride the bus. Heavy vehicles do the most damage, and buses are no exception. As a future LINK rider, I should also pay a bridge toll. LINK cars are heavy and likely to shorten the life of the I90 bridge as well. Tolling is a use tax and as such we should spread the cost among all users.

      2. I’m just cranky about the Rainier Valley stuff.

        Asking bicyclists or transit to pay is not a good idea. It doesn’t further growth management, VMT reduction, or climate change policy objectives. This isn’t all about cost.

        Link cars aren’t any heavier than the trucks that already cross the bridge.

      3. SOV’s should pay a toll on both bridges, buses, LR and bicycles should not. HOV’s should pay either nothing, or a reduced rate. And personally I think they should toll 405 too to pay for the new lanes – fair is fair.

        And I wouldn’t let the RV stuff get you down. Niles’s position won’t stand up in court and is quite honestly ridiculous – and even he knows it. He lost his little war against mass transit in Seattle and is now just trying to cause trouble. Nobody is listening though so who cares…

        On to July 18th when the game finally changes around here.

  3. (pedantic: “I can’t understate how significant” I assume you’re crossing “underscore” with “overstate”, resulting in the opposite of your intended message)

    1. Thanks. This post got a little long and I didn’t have the time to funny proof everything.

  4. Another scenario that needs to be looked at is:

    What if the “Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge—Evergreen Point” fails and is forced to close permanently before the tolls are put in place? Or if the failure happens before the proposed replacement bridge is ready (i.e. the “bridge transiton period” whenever after 10/10/10 that is planned to be)?

    Also, Adam, what is this “I-205” you speak of?

    1. I don’t think a current failure is any different than a failure during construction. We already have those scenarios.

  5. a majority of users support tolling existing cross-lake travel on multiple facilities to pay for a new bridge with zero new general purpose capacity.

    I don’t think that’s really true. Yes there are only two GP lanes on the new 520 design but you’ll remove HOV and transit from those lanes which during peak (the time when it actually matters) that’s going to free up about an additional 30% capacity and eliminate the merge on westbound traffic.

    I think we are (and should be) headed for tolls on I-90 but maybe it’s a good thing we aren’t doing this all at once. First it will give us real data to use regarding traffic diversion. Second, as we’ve seen with ORCA new technology is not without some growing pains. I know we’ve been using a similar system on 167 but there people have an easy option of not using it. On 520 you won’t have a choice. I think it’s important that a free SOV option (maybe not a pretty one) on any future I-90 or I-5 tolling remain in place. Those routes have too much through traffic from outside the region and I don’t think manual toll booths or mailing bills via photo enforcement are viable.

    I’d like to see talk of tolling the viaduct. Whether it’s for a new tunnel or just to cover the cost of maintenance or removal the tolls would give us an idea of how many people are willing to pay to travel this route.

    1. HOV and transit doesn’t come anywhere near 30% of the current bridge users – you’re talking about more like 5-10%.

      1. When the bridge is backed up the HOV lanes are just as solid as the two GP lanes. 3 lanes going through is 30% more capacity that 3 lanes necking down to 2 when it’s needed. I guess if you really wanted to make it sound good you could say 50% greater capacity. But the benefit of eliminating the merge accounts for as much in terms of congestion relief as the additional capacity. Off peak it doesn’t matter. The point is though that the continuous center HOV lane is going to make a very significant difference to the users of the GP lanes.

      2. No, that’s not true at all. The HOV lanes are only backed up in a few spots, on and off ramps and the merge, and that’s mostly SOV traffic trying to get into the GP lanes. HOV capacity on 520 really does only account for 5-10% of use. You should actually go read the 520 work done for the bridge replacement and tolling scenarios.

        Writing a number down on a napkin doesn’t make it true.

      3. Ben, the HOV lanes are often solid from 148th to the bridge deck. I ride home along the 520 path and often beat the freeway traffic from 148th to 116th. You’re right that this is largely do to the insane merging that cripples the outside HOV lane arrangement (an idea that was put in place when 520 ended at 148th). Remove that source of constipation and the HOV usage will skyrocket and you’ll have greater throughput on the GP lane. No matter what number you want to use the point in the original post which I took issue with was:

        a majority of users support tolling existing cross-lake travel on multiple facilities to pay for a new bridge with zero new general purpose capacity.

        This isn’t true no matter what percentage you want to apply to it.

      4. In eight years of commuting 520 daily, I’ve never seen the HOV lane anything like solid from end to end. Only backups from onramps, and of course the pre-405 interchange mess. Since it’s all on the traffic history page, why don’t you show me one of these times?

        If you really think the GP lanes will see significant increase in throughput, you can go ahead and think that, but I’m pretty sure the professionals disagree.

      5. June 9th was one such day. I took the 545 and the bus that was supposed to leave 51st at 5:09PM arrived at Montlake at 6:15PM (actual tranist was about an hour since the bus was late to begin with). Search the comments in the blog and you can find more stories of how this whole week was bad. Of course it’s light everywhere this week because most school districts have let out for the summer and loads of people went on vacation.

        Let’s say you’re right and the HOV lane only contribute 5% of peak traffic. If the HOV lane only accounts for 5% then we should make all lanes GP. Somehow I think that since this is one the biggest bottlenecks in the entire region it would seem to prove otherwise. But, once flow is improved it might well be possible to make this the standard double occupancy instead of three person HOV and further reduce pressure on the GP lanes.

        Let’s look at it another way. On days when the HOV lanes are working, like today, the two GP lanes feeding the bridge are currently at 22mph (5PM on a light traffic week) and the HOV lanes are wide open. Once on the bridge deck traffic is back up to the speed limit. Why, because of the HOV lanes merging. So even on light traffic days just eliminating the merge can double speed in the GP lanes. That means there’s a substantial potential to increase capacity of the GP lanes before it’s back to today’s level of congestion.

      6. I have to agree with Bernie here, moving the HOV lanes to the inside and extending them out over the bridge will be a huge win. The merging and lane jockeying slows the HOV Westbound way down with the lanes often blocked by people trying to merge in.

        BTW this is often why the bridge deck will often flow pretty well when both approaches are jammed. Most people won’t switch lanes once they are out on the bridge deck. Still it only takes a couple of idiots who decide they are going to switch back and forth the whole way across to slow everything down to a crawl (not to mention the infamous “stalled car mid-span”).

      7. The GP capacity in terms of raw math is really unchanged, it’s just that the HOV traffic isn’t going to merge into those lanes anymore. Less HOV traffic in those lanes will create less traffic but not more capacity.

    2. Bernie, I like you’re thinking on tolling the viaduct. I’ve been wondering if that’s a scenario that’s being considered. It sure makes sense – if we toll the current 520 bridge to help pay for it’s replacement, it would be logical and consistent to toll the current viaduct to help pay for it’s multi-billion dollar replacement.

      1. I agree, but the legislature would have to take action, which would mean you’d have to start a campaign to pressure them to do something they don’t want to do. :)

  6. I bike to work, though not across the lake. Theoretically, I don’t have a a problem with tolling bikes across I-90, assuming bike facilities are included in the new SR520 bridge. A bike toll would be a user fee for new facilities and seems fair in general. However, if the goals go beyond bridge construction and include long term attempts to control traffic flows by getting more people onto bikes and transit, it’s likely that tolling bikes is counterproductive and begs the question: Shouldn’t bus riders pay a surcharge for crossing the bridges too? After all, they use the new facilities too. And shouldn’t Link riders pay a surcharge too?

    Ultimately, though tolling bikes seems like an argument about fairness – when that argument is taken all the way, it runs counter to regional goals of funneling demand to other cleaner and less resource intensive modes of transportation.

    Therefore, I am against bike tolls on I-90.

    1. The new 520 will have a bike/pedestrian crossing like I90. If there were tolls on bikes then I think there would have to be tolls on pedestrians too which isn’t likely to fly. There’s a technical problem with tolling bikes. Most of the transponders need the cars electrical system to work. Second if you don’t have a transponder you’re tolled based on a picture of your license plate. If you’re going to have bike tabs then you would have to have pedestrian tabs too. Having a toll collector would probably cost more money than it brought in. Putting in and maintaining trails like the Burke Gillman and SRT cost more than the “sidewalk” on I90. Once you go down the bike toll path then those facilities would have to have user fees as well. I think most people are content with the idea of non-motorized infrastructure being funded by things like property taxes because trails, like parks enhance the overall livability of the region.

      1. For tolling peds and bikes across the bridge you could put in turnstiles.

        The WSDOT Good to Go! transponder is just a sticker affixed to the windshield. No external power is required. Those GPS-based ones, however, need power.

    2. In order to charge a toll for pedestrians and bicycles on I-90 or SR-520, you are going to have to staff the toll-collection facility to prevent cheating. Now, is this going to pay for itself or will it be like the county bus systems in rural Washington who have decided not to bother collecting a fare because handling the money will cost more than the sum that is being collected.

      Also, I wonder if there is an ADA argument to be made for having to allow disabled persons unable to operate a motor vehicle access to a transportation facility their tax dollars also pay for.

  7. I don’t know. Tolls on I-5 or I-405 seem pretty impractical to me. Bridges are one thing because they are natural choke points and it’s really quite obvious where to collect the toll on each side. And because the I-90 and SR-405 bridges generally serve to connect the Puget Sound area, most of the crossings are local traffic and can be automated with some sort of technology. (Like on SR-167). You can designate one lane for out of area people who want to pay with cash (or debit) and put up a single booth on each side.

    But I-5 and even I-405 are used for through traffic by non-local users to a much, much higher extent. None of those people are going to have transponders or EZ passes or whatever technology you use, and because toll roads are so unfamiliar to people o the West coast, there’s going to be a ton of confusion. And the sheer number of freeway exits and entrances means that the number of collection points is exponentially higher than with a bridge.

    I’ve used toll roads in various places back east (granted this was a while ago) and their infrastructure is completely different. There are fewer exits, fewer entrances, fewer city connections in many places and expanded service rest stops that incorporate Restaurants and gas stations so you can refill the tank and get dinner without actually leaving the toll road and passing through another booth. We don’t have anything like that kind of set up.

    We can get away with tolling the viaduct replacement tunnel because it will bypass downtown and have a limited number of entrance/exit points. Also, the fraction of local traffic is much higher. I like the idea of tolls on I-5 to reduce congestion and provide funding, but I just think it’d be a logistical nightmare.

    1. On I-5 they could toll the express lanes. As it sits there’s little “express” about them. The only real option I see for 405 is an extension of the HOT lanes as used on 167. There’s been little said about how that demonstration project is doing but the little information I have seen hasn’t been good. One thing that might improve use would be a mileage based system (cost per segment traveled) rather than fixed cost to enter.

      1. Yeah, tolling the express lanes would work logistically, but logically tolling just the I-5 express lanes because tolls on HWY 99 are shifting excess traffic to I-5 doesn’t quite seem to add up. All you’d do is make the regular I-5 lanes even worse. I’m not saying tolls on the Express lanes wouldn’t be a good idea, just that you can’t really argue for them with the same reasoning you’d use to argue in favor of tolling both 520 and I-90.

        I’m not sure about HOT lanes. I haven’t seen any data on 167 either, but I know from some anecdotal evidence (my aunt) that the HOV lanes on 405 make a huge difference. She’s reworked her schedule in order to carpool with a coworker. But if you opened those lanes up to SOV drivers willing to pay a toll, she might not bother with the hassle of the carpool. That kind of reasoning would put more drivers on the roads and slow down the HOT lanes. Converting a regular lane to a HOT lane so you have it in addition to the HOV lane might work, but you’ve only got so many lanes to work with.

      2. On I-405, WSDOT is proposing something they call ‘express toll’ lanes. Basically, they’d add another HOV lane in each direction and operate them like HOT lanes. This would provide enough additional capacity to sell to SOVs that it might actually bring in more money than it costs to operate (unlike the 167 HOT lanes).

        While they aren’t ‘profitable’, I think one of the good things about the 167 HOT lanes is that they diffuse some of the clamor to open them up as GP lanes in off-peak hours.

    2. We have the technology. It could be pretty much like the center city congestion charge systems that have cameras to grab license plate numbers.

      Maybe there could be 5 free I-5 trips (for tourists) or something and then you start getting tickets if you haven’t signed up for the toll pass. No gates, no mess. I’m guessing a lot of tourists will have rental cars anyway.

  8. I am in favor of tolling both the I-90 and the I-520 bridges because without doing so, everyone will be wanting to pour across the I-90 if it is left untolled and the I-520 alone is tolled. This seems like the best solution all around.

    Of course if the economy improves, and the State pulls in more revenue, then the subject can be revisited again or perhaps the tolls reduced. Until that moment, though, tolling seems like an acceptable means of raising revenue for a legitimate purpose.

    Gary’s suggestion of the two-zone being a surcharge tax on bus users crossing the lake is a somewhat pointless remark. With few crossing points across Lake Washington, it seems reasonable to pay a little extra for the privilege of crossing the Lake via a bus on a car pool lane, thereby freeing up more space on the general purpose lanes for SOV vehicles. In addition, it is a beautiful way to cross into or out of Seattle and worth the additional ‘zone’ rate to do so.

    1. Talk to your legislators. They don’t want to toll 90 (specifically Clibborn, of course).

  9. The thing about tolling 520 and not I-90 is that drivers are going to end up paying for both. You’ll pay for 520 with money and I-90 with time. At first glance that seems reasonable. Some people value money over time and visa-versa; so let everyone choose. But money is fungible in a way time is not. If I pay a toll, it’s to my cost and the state’s benefit. Then the state takes that money and uses it to improve roads and everyone benefits. What seems like a simple zero sum transaction is actually win-win.

    But the time you pay to travel the I-90 bridge can’t be transferred to anyone. It’s useless like waste heat. You pay, but no one benefits. In fact, since you’re sitting there pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, everyone looses. It’s non-zero sum, in the worst possible way.

    There’s no point in suffering for absolutely zero benefit to anyone, unless you’re indulging the most petty of human instincts.

  10. By the way, there is one other option: tear it out and don’t rebuild it. It’s the best option for the viaduct. Doesn’t sound so good for SR-520, but I thought I’d mention it for completeness.

    1. Or just replace with a rail only bridge like the Skybridge in Vancouver. That thing is awesome and I want one.

      1. Would you be happy with that bridge to West Seattle? We’d probably have overhead wires, though.

      2. Yeah that would be cool. Zooming on Link right next to the West Seattle Bridge, watching as you pass all the cars.

  11. thought u should know that over here on the east coast Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania will be getting tolls. they had to have congress allow it or some such thing

    1. Yes the federal government has to give states permission to toll interstates. This was not an issue with SR-520 and although WSDOT has to get permission to toll I-90 the federal government is more than happen to let states toll interstates.

    1. 520 won’t have booths as far as I know, it’ll be transponders or they mail you a (much higher) toll to pay.

      1. How do they enforce that if you’re from out of state? I’m imagining my parents driving up here to see my Grandparents at Christmas and possibly using the bridge. Now my Dad’s the kind of scrupulously honest person who’d send in a check in January, but a lot of people wouldn’t. I mean, unless you got pulled over for speeding or another violation on a subsequent visit, the State of Washington isn’t going to be able to do a thing about it. But I guess the same thing is true for parking tickets, yes?

      2. Many States have reciprocal agreements. I believe that includes all of our neighboring States. That means they can do things like not renew your license or forward the info to insurance companies. The State can also send the bill to collections irregardless of what State you live in which can make life unpleasant.

        Still, it seems like the option of a cash toll booth like they use on the Narrows Bridge would be the way to go. Toll collection there is the responsibility of a private company which keeps the tolls in repayment for putting up much of the construction cost. I’ve got to believe they looked at the economic trade off of different systems.

        Part of the problem might be that the State wants to collect tolls in both directions. Maybe $3 each way seems easier to swallow than a $6 toll one direction. There really isn’t room for toll booths on the west side and on the eastside there’s really only going to be enough room for collection in one direction. Other considerations are the merge from people paying manual would seriously impact peak capacity and be dangerous. There’s also the issue that it’s much easier to alter your route crossing Lake Washington than it is for most people using the Narrows Bridge. Also, variable tolling would be a little harder to manage with manual collection and this is seen as a key component to TDM.

        One option when grandparents come up to visit is to loan them a transponder. I plan to get a couple ORCA cards so I can give them to friends and relatives when they visit.

      3. Good to know on the legal stuff. I guess states communicate better than I thought (The fact that my mother says she still gets Oregon absentee ballots with my name on them three years after I registered to vote in Washington made me wonder…)

        And yeah, I have ORCA cards for visitors too. And I could lend them my transponder if they needed it, although they’d probably just skip the hassle of it all and take 522. Which makes me hope that the road construction on 522 is completed before tolling on 520 starts. We talk about traffic shifting from 520 to I-90, but it’s also possible that a lot of the traffic from points north will shift to 522.

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