SR 520 Toll Sign (WSDOT)

Tolls started today at 5:00am but it will take weeks, or more likely months to get an idea of how SR-520 tolls will create a new “normal” for transportation in the central puget sound region. Regardless what was your experience like today?

How are you, friend and coworkers adjusting to tolls? Personally, I have become the commute trip advisor at my office in Totem Lake, where about a third of my co-workers live in Seattle. I expect transit ridership in the peak direction to grow but be constrained by Park & Ride capacity and I expect significant growth, as a percentage, in reverse peak transit ridership. Talking to coworkers I see reverse commute trips generally being much more “innovative” since transit service to employment centers on the Eastside is worse than to downtown Seattle.

What was your experience?

63 Replies to “SR-520 Tolls Start Today”

  1. How well this area will deal with the new situation will depend on transit agencies and the citizens who pay for them showing some initiative.

    For starters, I-90 and I-5 have both needed two-way all-day transit lanes for a long time. I-5 will be harder to do structurally, but both are still more a matter of politics than civil engineering.

    I think it’s time for a major citizen political push for transit priority and signal pre-empt regionwide. Present it this way: Do you want to be stuck in your car or moving fast on transit?

    “Framing”, like James Carville and Karl Rove put it, has its uses.

    Mark Dublin

    1. The I-90 transit lanes are coming. Unfortunately, they aren’t scheduled to open until 2024.

      The I-5 transit lanes up to Northgate are scheduled for 2021.

      South Link will start to serve as an I-5 transit lane after 200th St Station opens in 2016, but its veer through Rainier Valley adds about ten minutes of travel time, so connecting buses to that transit lane will be a tougher sell.

      At any rate, if WSDOT has money sitting around for lane conversion, put it into speeding up the shovel-ready conversions listed above.

      1. For something between $250 and $350 million a Link bypass along Airport Way can jump the gap from Boeing Access to the Maintenance Facility. It can be at-grade for nearly the entire length of the airport between the BNSF tracks and the freeway and would need about a half mile of elevated in spots in and north of Georgetown. The flying junctions for the maintenance yard already provide the north-end interlocking, and the south end interlocking can be a southbound flyover above the BNSF and BAR and northbound fly-under to the south and east of the existing automobile underpass.

        Now $300 million give or take would be very hard to come by, but if it saved $30 million in operating costs per year by truncating buses at So 200th or TIB, that would be a ten year payback.

        Even $15 million per year would only take twenty years to pay back.

        The problem of course is that most of the savings would accrue to Metro, not ST who would have to pay for the bypass. Some sort of separate bond to be paid by Metro might be the right way to finance it.

      2. After the 45th subway is built, and the 8, 11, and 48 are upgraded. The ten minutes south-county Link riders are losing is nothing compared to the thirty minutes or sixty minutes other parts of Seattle are losing. Or, since you mention it, the thirty or sixty minutes south-county riders are losing transferring from an infrequent/slow/circuituous bus to Link.

  2. I’m pleased to see tolling finally going and I look forward to how it might change congestion/freeway building politics.
    Any idea how/if the State Patrol is set up to catch obscured or missing license plates? I hope the system takes photos of front and rear plates. Recently I’ve been noticing bike racks mounted to trailer hitches that block a good bit of the plate. Also front plates are too often missing. Then there are those tinted, plastic covers that can make plates hard to read.
    I figure with the scanners at the east end of the bridge that toll monitors could send vehicle descriptions/images to a trooper at the west end of the bridge for citation but that seems tricky/dangerous to collect a few bucks along with a fine. If enforcement is weak I’d expect to see more plate flipping devices or subtle obscuring techniques. Maybe chronic cheaters will get special treatment and get chased down. (Of course, little of this tolling technology is really new but we’re just not used to it on a major highway with no cash option. If I was more familiar with the Narrows bridge protocols I probably wouldn’t be asking some of these questions.)

      1. the cops need to start enforcing the license plate cover rule … I see those clear covers everywhere

      2. And they’re sold at every auto parts/accessories store, with the fine-print disclaimer of “check your local laws before using”.

        At the store I manage, we get a lot of customers coming in asking for “those license plate covers so the red light cameras can’t read your plate”. We’ve got a whole rack of them, 30 different styles, every one illegal.

      3. “We’ve got a whole rack of them, 30 different styles, every one illegal”

        Not to mention completely ineffective. Mythbusters did an episode about these license plate covers vs. red light cameras and found that they were useless.

      4. Oh yeah. I don’t have any idea where people get the idea that they camera-proof your plate. Some people even think they’ll stop radar(???).

        Their only stated purpose is to protect your plate from minor rock chips and scratches. And some tinting for appearance.

        The reason they’re illegal here is only because the State Patrol doesn’t like the extra light they sometimes reflect, making it harder for humans to read the plate under an oddly angled spotlight.

    1. I’m glad you’re so giddy with pleasure, so .. “Let the Games Begin”
      More cops to chase down offenders of all ilks.
      More service technicians and backroom folks to service the system.
      More State/Wall St. ‘sharing’ of your credit/debit account balances.
      More paperwork to deny licence renewals for delinquent accounts.
      More trips to DOL to ‘straighten everything out’ (coded more $$)
      More collection agents combing the hills for the last nickel.
      More invasion of privacy through tracking.
      and finally,
      More (up to 300 more) locations where all this fun can generated.
      Welcome to 1984, ScottA

      1. Tolling on major bridges over the Columbia and other bodies of water, and on all mountain passes, will reward those who are transit users, choose not to own cars, or both:
        More driver responsibility for resource use.
        More driver responsibility for snow and ice removal.
        More driver responsibility for damages to highways by studs and chains.
        MUCH more responsibility for damage and destruction of highways.
        The beginning of the end to this country’s mono-focused, internal combustion and rubber tire oriented “transport system”

      2. Thanks for straightening me out Adam. I don’t want to rain on the Parade.
        I read the law, and you’re right. Personal freedoms are ‘Locked In’ now.

      3. And all because politicians were threatened by an irresponsible user group (motorists/auto-addiction lobbyists)) every time a raise in the gas tax EVEN TO JUST KEEP PACE WITH INFLATION was proposed!

      4. The overhead costs of toll collection are approximately 30% of the tolls collected. The overhead costs of gas tax collection are more like 3%. Sure would be nice if we could just increase the gas tax and thereby increase the toll on all driving, with an embedded surcharge for fuel-inefficient vehicles. There could still be tolls for the most congested roads, but by increasing gas taxes money can be collected universally without expensive overhead, and perhaps also reduce some traffic diversion.

    2. License plate covers are an invitation for the police to pull you over and have a little chat. “License, registration and proof of insurance please.” Miss any one of the three and you’re in for a fine or worse. Got any outstanding tickets or warrants? Traveling with an illegal substance or the smell of alcohol? Safety belt fastened. All lights properly working? Tires all have legal tread?

      1. The vast majority of plate covers I see are on US-made autos – does this jibe with what others see?

  3. I’m curious, has ST ever looked at an express bus from DT Seattle to the Totem Lake Freeway Station? I know the 255 does the job (I use it in fact), but it can make for a long commute some days.

    1. There is the 265 which is a peak-direction, peak-period routes that goes to Houghton P&R, so part of the way there. Besides that you basically have to transfer through Bellevue Transit Center if you want to take a bus from the flyer stop.

      I have tried this before (in the reverse peak direction) in combination with the 550 and didn’t find it faster than just taking the 255, which isn’t very fast.

      I do think in the long run this can be improved significantly, especially with an improved 271/East Link and improved reverse peak service on I-405 but until then I usually just keep my car at south Kirkland P&R overnight and drive from there to Totem Lake after taking the 255 across the bridge. Saves me over an hour each day.

      1. ST needs to annex Monroe and take over CT’s 424 from Monroe through Woodinville, Bothell, Totem Lake, 520 and downtown. It would improve regional access for people in the valley tremendously and would also fulfill some east side needs to relieve Metro.

    2. Are you talking about a couple one-way peak commuter runs, or regular bidirectional service? Based on reverse-commute loads I see on the 255 (I get off before the split) I can’t imagine a two-way route that serves basically nothing but DT Seattle and Totem Lake (there are no worthwhile intermediate stops that don’t take you quite far out of the way) being a wise investment of service hours. But I don’t know about the forward commute.

    3. Why can’t the current 311 be made bi-directional? Some trips in the morning actually deadhead back to Kirkland or Brickyard or start as an outbound 255.

      If the 252 and 257 were deleted (routes that I ride) and hours reinvested into the 311 (a route that I can walk or drive to) and the connecting 236 and 238 (local routes that the 252/257 duplicate but don’t connect well at the freeway stops), they could add more peak direction runs and maybe some reverse peak runs. Combined, Metro runs 25 one-way trips in each peak period on 405 serving this market. There could a single super 311 running every 7.5 minutes in both directions during peak, serving the currently underused Woodinville P&R and the Totem Lake area (considered a regional urban center).

      1. Wow how did I not know about the 311! This routes has pretty frequent service when it is running. If there were just a few reverse peak runs in the morning and afternoon I would totally take this route every day and I wouldn’t need a car anymore.

  4. One of my co-workers who buses from Redmond to S. Lake Union every day said her bus was crowded this morning, on a light commute day (i.e. between holidays). She is thinking that her regular bus will be very, very crowded next week and is trying to find another bus route/schedule in case the bus is over-crowded.

    1. Is her route on a holiday schedule? Metro cut out some peak-period service so if it is, that might explain some of it. Check the schedule and see if any of the runs have an “H” in the schedule.

  5. Nope, regular schedule. But maybe some riders had their routes cut back due to route holiday schedules.

  6. I’m still puzzled by the decision to toll current users of an old, decrepit bridge so that future riders of the new modern bridge will have lower tolls, or tolls over a shorter period of time. Is there any precident for this?

    Personally, I will be retired before the new bridge is open, so I pay now and receive no benefit, ever.

    1. The immediate benefit is faster traffic flow. If you value a few dollars more than your time, take I-90.

      Still, the existence of your car commute across SR 520 is a benefit you are already receiving at the expense of most taxpayers in this state. Now, the subsidy will be less, but it will still be subsidized.

      1. It ain’t just “a few dollars”, Brent; over the course of a year, it’s way north of $1,000. Sure, I can afford it, but I’m concerned for my nephew and others like him with his $10/hour laborer job. Working construction, he’s always going to/from different sites, so transit is often not a workable alternative. I’m sure he will just leave a little earlier and sit in the traffic jam on I-90.

        I believe the policy implications of this were not totally thought through.

      2. The 520 bridge was paid off years ago, entirely with the revenue from tolls on vehicles crossing that bridge — not “at the expense of most taxpayers in this state.”

      3. @TV: It’s pretty dishonest to advocate for road tolling without acknowledging that it raises cost of living, usually in ways that aren’t especially fair. Haphazard tolling is a stupid outcome of the political process. Any sane person charged with creating a tolling scheme for expensive works projects would have the toll remain much more consistent over time, reflecting the fact that ongoing maintenance and periodic replacement will be necessary.

        I think our cities need more freeway tolling, not less. The maintenance of basic public roads is a public good (as long as they’re reasonably accessible to all users), and it’s reasonable to build them with public tax revenue. Freeways in urban areas tend to help some people at the expense of others. They divide neighborhoods (often their construction directly displaces them) and create border vacuums; they’re noisy and make neighboring areas less desirable; they force people crossing their paths (by any mode) into longer, slower, more dangerous routes with steeper grades; they deliver higher traffic volume to local roads. Because of the negative consequences on people that don’t use them it’s appropriate that they should be paid for by their users, not the general public.

        Construction workers that have to move from site to site should have better transportation compensation/arrangements from their employers — moving workers around the region is rightly a cost of construction, just as moving materials is. I don’t know enough about how the labor market works in construction to comment beyond that.

    2. If the bridge is considerably more expensive to build and maintain than other roads, what they really should do is always maintain a toll covering the cost of maintenance and periodic rebuilds over the cost of standard road maintenance. In that sense, you’ve benefited from upkeep of the road for years without paying for it.

      Generally road tolling in the US is pretty haphazard and unfair. Look at a map of Chicagoland with the toll roads colored differently from the free ones. It’s pretty ridiculous. All freeways should probably be tolled. More importantly, a lot of them should be demolished.

    3. Well there were several things. Having tolls now helps reduce financing costs since WSDOT has money coming in while construction work is going on. It certainly isn’t enough to cover a majority of the costs, but every dollar you can pay up front will save WSDOT multiple dollars due to financing costs.

      I think the biggest reason though is that WSDOT and KCM won a federal grant, something like 120 million dollars, that required them to start tolling last year. Metro got money for buses and P&R projects and WSDOT got money to upgrade the ITS system and build the tolling system. There was also some transportation demand management money as well.

      1. Adam is correct. The tolling of the existing bridge was funded by a grant from FHWA under their Urban Partnership Agreement program.

        Here is some background about the program from the FHWA web site:
        “In December 2006, the Department issued a Federal Register Notice soliciting cities to apply for Urban Partnership status by April 30, 2007, and promising that the selected cities with the most aggressive congestion-relief programs would receive priority consideration for available Federal discretionary funds (approximately $1 billion) across ten programs. To receive program funds, cities were also required to submit applications to the appropriate program offices. (Identical applications were accepted if all program application requirements were met.) The Department sought applicants to aggressively use four complementary and synergistic strategies (referred to as the “4Ts”) to relieve urban congestion: Tolling, Transit, Telecommuting, and Technology.”

        Here are the particulars about the Seattle agreement:

    4. You say your retiring soon, is it possible you’ve been in the area long to have paid tolls for the current 520 bridge? If so, then you’re really getting double-dipped.

      But everyone who’s used the bridge since 1979 hasn’t paid for their own wear-and-tear on the bridge – you could argue that these drivers are the reason it needs to be replaced in the first place (design flaws aside).

      There’s a bad car analogy in here somewhere, but I’m too lazy to figure it out.

      1. There has been a lot of gas tax revenue collected from the 100,000-plus vehicles per day which have crossed the 520 bridge since the tolls were removed.

      2. “There has been a lot of gas tax revenue collected…”

        About $50 million over 30 years. How much has maintenance cost over that time? How much is the new bridge costing?

  7. I was on the 255 in the reverse-commute direction today. Traffic was light on 520 in both directions and I-5 wasn’t too heavy either. But it’s a holiday, so that’s to be expected. The 255 had a pretty average load but the 5 had fewer passengers than usual. So maybe there was some

    I’ll probably bike I-90 at least once next week, but… it will still be holiday season, and I probably won’t notice any traffic jams unless they’re extremely severe (oncoming traffic at 60MPH relative velocity looks little different from oncoming traffic with 80MPH relative velocity).

    1. Subjectively it looked to me like traffic on 520 yesterday was about half the level that it normally is. There were wide gaps.

      The Seattle Times is reporting a 45% drop in 520 traffic compared to earlier in the week and a 20% increase in I-90 traffic.

      Next week will be the real test as people return from the holiday. With a $7 round trip toll at peak, and $5.60 shoulder, I expect there will be significant diversion to I-90, which could also gum up I-405.

      What plans have Metro, Sound Transit & WS-DOT made to keep I-90 buses moving, esp in “reverse” direction? Is there an ability to accelerate the reverse HOV lane? (“Reverse” is a fallacy on the cross-lake bridges these days.)

  8. I have to say, I-90 West was very packed for a holiday week at 6:15 tonite. I sure hope someone takes 520… not only will there never be money for the new bridge, but I may have to move closer to work. Did no one get their family a “Good to Go” for Xmas?

  9. I drove on 520 on Wednesday, one last time toll-free. Went to Bellevue Square to return a few Christmas gifts then saw “Hugo” at Lincoln Square. I don’t get over to Bellevue very often to begin with and usually when I do, it is on transit(ST 550). Now, if the bus is going to be stuck in traffic on I-90, I may have to figure out a different bus route, but then again, since I go over there so infrequently, maybe it doesn’t matter.

    I am curious, though, in how long it will take for regular users of I-90(the ones who come from Issaquah/North Bend instead of ‘new’ users diverted from 520), to complain about the increased traffic and slower drive times across I-90. Will the traffic be heavy enough for them to begin to beg for a toll just so people will stop using the bridge? Maybe a toll that is a bit less than 520, making the diversion from 520 just not as palatable for people anymore? I look forward to reading that story in the Seattle Times in about 8 months!

    1. That part is most interesting to me as well.

      I would love to see what the total carrying capacity of I-90 is.

      I also wonder if some will make the full loop down around I-405 now that it has expanded lanes as well.

      I wonder if the tolls will reduce traffic so much on 520 that it might be seen as not really necessary…with I90 and 405 more than adequate.

      1. “I also wonder if some will make the full loop down around I-405 now that it has expanded lanes as well.”

        Only a masochist would do that regularly.

      2. Where’s the destination? Avoiding I-90 by going through Renton makes sense if you want to be somewhere south of I-90 in Seattle. Using SR-520 for that trip means taking I-405 through Bellevue and I-5 through downtown Seattle. That would also be masochistic. Unless I-90 is totally closed, it probably still saves time to use it and just go slow.

        A more likely diversion around the lake would be for someone starting out north of 520 with a destination on I-5 also north of 520.

      3. Well to me it’s a matter of topography.

        For example, imagine if Lake Washington were not there, and instead we substituted simple straight distance for going around the lake…so take Bellevue, and pull it Eastward, and straighten out highway 405.

        Now what you have there is just what…20 miles of highway? Yes, it seems like it’s “so much shorter” to go across the bridges, but in point of fact, going around the end of the Lake, at highway speeds, is just not that long and is in fact, typical of many suburban to city commutes!

        Quite frankly, I think this area could have gotten away with never having built any bridges across Lake Washington, and just assumed that traveling around the Lake was part of the commute.

      4. Here’s an idea. If few people are willing to pay the toll, just dismantle the bridge and don’t replace it.

        “I think this area could have gotten away with never having built any bridges across Lake Washington, and just assumed that traveling around the Lake was part of the commute.”

        Yes, the Eastside would have developed more like the West Sound. When the Mercer Island bridge was built, it was a few small towns and lots of farmland. When the Evergreen bridge was built, downtown Belleuve was all low-rise, Overlake consisted of Sears and White Front (Fred Meyer), and the march of apartments hadn’t reached Richards Road. The house I grew up in east of Northup Way was built around 1970. But none of that would be there if the bridges weren’t there. Bothell, Renton, Lynnwood, and Kent would be bigger, Kirkland would have its ferry, and Bellevue and Redmond would be small-towns-later-exurban-McMansions.

    2. A friend of mine who lives in Ballard and works in Issaquah was quite excited last night at the time savings she got taking 520 instead of I-90….

    3. In the legislation that created tolls on SR-520 there was a provision that directed WSDOT to monitor diversion on I-90 and if there was a significant increase in congestion on the corridor WSDOT was to look at how to address the issue.

      I take on it is that most close to the project think I-90 needs to be tolled to stop diversion but there wasn’t the political will to push tolls on both bridges at that time. Now electeds can come in a say, see we tried to not toll I-90 but it isn’t working. We’re going to toll I-90 to reduce congestion and help more fully fund SR-520 construction and provide some kind of mitigation on I-90.

  10. My morning 556 from Issaquah to Bellevue yesterday had far lighter ridership than is normal for a weekday. Applying Norman Logic(TM) to that experience, I conclude that implementation of 520 tolling has actually caused a decrease in transit ridership.

  11. I don’t ride public transportation, in the service area, anymore, and, limit my driving to the Eastside. Though, to answer the two questions;

    > what was your experience like [yesterday]?

    It was alright. I was a little blue that I no longer possess my transit pass, and, a round-trip fare, on ST545, is $5.00. (I would’ve made the round-trip, to ride on the Gov. A.D. Rosellini Bridge, had I possessed a transit pass.)

    How are you, friend and coworkers adjusting to tolls?

    I’m adjusting, as are my friends. I think most individuals are apathetic, if not slightly annoyed, at the toll.

  12. Why could the toll be only from say 8am-8pm? I was very disappointed to have to pay $3.10 at 10:30PM with virtually no one else on the road.

    1. Because it wouldn’t raise enough revenue. If you’d waited another 30 minutes it would have been free. It would be half the cost if you had a Good to Go pass. Unlike Orca there is a very real monetary incentive to get with the program. Traffic is exceptionally light the week between Xmas and New Year’s Day; even more so with the new toll in place since a lot of people have procrastinated getting their account set up and with no traffic it’s easy to divert to I-90. On a normal week night the bridge is quite busy between 8-11PM and after 7am it is often gridlock for the AM commute.

  13. I wonder what impact the tolls are expected to have on Metro and ST’s operating costs? If buses crossing the lake that are currently in stop-and-go traffic can start moving faster and more reliably, maybe it would be possible to fund additional trips out of the existing service hours with the time saved in avoided traffic congestion. And if more people ride the bus, fare revenues will increase as well.

    I don’t know what the impact on I-90 will be. However, I-90 already has more capacity than 520 and will soon have by-directional HOV lanes, which should at least keep the buses moving. I would hope that financially, the effect of the tolling on Metro and ST is positive, but I guess only time will tell.

    1. Hopefully. I just read Jarrett Walker’s “Human Transit” book, and it emphasizes how increasing speed is the only way to increase frequency without adding cost. Raising frequency increases ridership, which means a higher percentage of people in that corridor are taking transit, which leads to more pro-transit voters. Road diets are the cheapest way to increase speed. Hopefully the examples of 520 and RapidRide A, B, and E — while less than ideal — will show enough benefit to tip the scale toward converting more lanes to transit priority. Ultimately Walker says, shouldn’t every major arterial have transit-priority lanes?

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