A system above the 520 bridge deck will scan passes and read license plates, deducting from prepaid accounts or sending bills to vehicle owners via mail. (Credit: WashDOT)

Landscape architect Tom Early has always been economical about his daily commute over the 520 bridge between Seattle and Kirkland, sharing his car with two friends from traffic technology company INRIX who reimburse him for gas every month.

But their carpool has been busted up. Faced with the prospect of more than $1,600 a year in tolls, they’ve decided the price of driving has become too high even to share. Early will be taking the bus across Lake Washington most days, as will his former passengers.

“When you look at it on bigger scale, you realize there are some major decisions that have to be made,” he says. “It’s going to make a lot of people become more creative in the way they get around.”

It’s one example of the adjustments commuters will be making as the state begins tolling Thursday on the 520 bridge, the busy artery connecting Seattle to the Eastside headquarters of Microsoft and other major tech companies. Funds will be put toward the construction of a replacement bridge.

How the system will work

Tolls will vary depending on time of day, peaking at $3.50 during rush hour for drivers with a Good to Go electronic pass, and an additional $1.50 for people without one. With a pass, that’s $7 a day for someone commuting back and forth during peak hours. On an annual basis, that’s no small chunk of a household budget.

For the most part, workers will be on their own when it comes to that extra expense. Most companies aren’t planning to reimburse employees for tolls unless they’re incurred on a work-related trip.

Many commuters will be determined to remain behind the wheel, and there are no fewer than seven new mobile apps to help drivers find alternative routes and time their commutes. (We tested all of them and offered our recommendations in this previous post.) The Interstate 90 bridge is the primary alternative.

But some of the most budget-mind commuters will be shifting to flexible work schedules, vanpools, and bus passes that allow them to take advantage of employer transit reimbursement programs.

King County Metro transit officials say organizations and companies such as Expedia, Bellevue College, Lake Washington Institute of Technology, engineering firm CH2M HILL and architecture firm MulvannyG2 have organized meetings at their workplaces to help employees explore public transit options and organize vanpools.

How the tolls may change behavior

Many employees are trying to plan ahead, and explore their alternatives, said Monica Joyce, a traffic engineer at CH2M HILL who also serves as the firm’s employee transportation coordinator. “We are an office of engineers, so we’ve got a lot of people who are looking at every angle,” she explained.

But even with that, she said, it remains to be seen exactly how people will adjust once the tolling begins.

Officials with the Washington Department of Transportation likewise caution that there’s no way to know exactly how commuters will adjust their behavior to the tolls.

However, based on historic data, this is how WashDOT’s traffic models show the patterns changing over time.

  • About 20% of trips across SR 520 move to I-90.
  • 4% move to SR 522.
  • 5% travel north or south on I-405.
  • 15% switch to other options, including transit, new travel time or do not to travel

It’s also important to remember that this is a holiday week for many workers, and the real changes won’t become evident until more people are back at work next week.

The outlook from Redmond

What about Microsoft? The software company employs about 40,000 people in the Seattle region, many of them in Redmond and Bellevue. In addition to promoting vanpools  and car pools, and giving bus passes to employees, Microsoft operates its own bus system, The Connector. (The buses, like registered vanpools, are exempt from the tolls.)

Like most other employers, Microsoft won’t be paying for tolls, except when they’re related to trips made specifically for work. The company has been communicating with employees about the tolls since earlier this year, when the tolling was originally planned to go into effect.

Over the summer, the company added runs to the Connector routes that go between Seattle and the Eastside, to accommodate additional demand. That was in part to anticipate the start of tolling, but also because employee usage of the Connector system has generally been increasing, said Lou Gellos, a Microsoft spokesman.

Microsoft will be monitoring demand for the system and is ready to make further adjustments after tolling begins, he said.

Long-term impact on the region

One lingering question is whether the tolls will cause more companies based on the Eastside to open new satellite offices in Seattle, and vice versa, to help workers avoid the tolls.

Microsoft opened a series of offices in Seattle a few years ago, but Gellos said the company’s need for space west of Lake Washington has actually diminished in recent years because of initiatives such as the Connector and the expansion of the Redmond campus.

Our inquiries this week to commercial real estate agents in the region didn’t turn up any evidence of other companies scouting for satellite offices as a result of the tolls.

But as with many things related to the new tolls, the full impact may not be clear until the actual costs start to hit home.

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  • http://djmajortom.com/ Tom S.

    I, for one, will avoid the 520 like the plague. This is a regressive tax that impacts low income commuters the most. The 520 is about to become Seattle’s private road for privileged peoples. It’s insane that we fund critical infrastructure with fees that exceed the cost of a fast food meal.

    • Peter W

      It is equally insane that we are unwilling to tax ourselves to invest in critical infrastructure. I guess that, when faced with two insane choices, we picked the insane one.

    • Guest

      Tom, are you aware you live in Seattle? We hate the poor. That’s why we tax them the most, that’s why we have such an awful public transit system, and that’s why we impose tolls and fees that hurt them the most.

      Seriously, poors, if measures like these don’t spur you to make more money, what will?

      • Biker_1958

        what an ass go back to burienan sniff your dogs ass.

    • Anonymous

      This is the kind of “civic” thinking that wants some one else to pay for what they use.  I think use taxes are the most fair approach to funding large projects.  Why should people who gain no benefit from 520 pay for it?    

      Yes, I think the price is too high – it should be about half and regular commuters should get a “volume discount” but that doesn’t dampen my agreement with the toll concept.

      The other aspect of the 520 tolls is that it will encourage greener behavior (yes, the dreaded “social engineering”).  People will move closer to their place of employment (or chose employment closer to where they live).  It will also, as the article describes, encourage higher ridership in mass transit. On this basis, I see the toll as a good thing.

      You should get used to use taxes.  More are on the way.  I much prefer seeing the real cost rather than having it buried in a sales or income tax.  Then, you are faced with a simple choice – use or avoid – and don’t have to support something you don’t believe in.

      • Biker_1958

        problem is the goverment thinks they can tax u on everything. they have this idea that what u work for is theres evry time u get a raise  or find extra money they want to think it’s theres an take it from u.like robin hood except their the opposite they take from the poor an give to the rich.so if u like giving your hard earned money to the goverment or to people that alredy have enough money to sit on their ass behind a desk an like to take your money keep taking the 520 or worse give in to thier wants an maybe you can watch your money be wasted like toilet paper.seems like thier isnt enough taxes without them thinking of anymore,GOT TAXES.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll continue to take the bus, but may switch more to routes over 520 if the congestion lowers.

  • Anonymous

    So if 20 percent of traffic shifts to I-90 from 520 how can only 4% more traffic be on 405?  What about impact to I-5 through downtown Seattle? INRIX thinks the amount of additional traffic 405 and I-5 will receive as connector roads to I-90 is greatly underestimated. INRIX also is predicting heavier than normal traffic on I-5 through downtown on both the a.m. and evening commutes as drivers have to take I-5 to either get to 90 or as means to get back into Seattle on the commute home.

  • http://blog.calbucci.com/ Marcelo Calbucci

    As a person who’s obsessed with optimizing my time, I find a $3.50 to cut my commute time by 10-15 minutes totally worth it.

  • Brian Crouch

    If the projected reductions in 520 usage are correct, we’re looking at a 44%  overall decrease in the number of riders on that road and a concomitant increase in other routes. 

    Imagine if all of the alternate-route-seeking drivers were willing to use 520, with a toll of $2 each way instead. The revenue would work out to almost the same. $2 is ~44% less than the current peak toll rate. 
    So: 44% fewer users due to the $3.50 toll rate, or the same number of users at a 44% lower rate, $2? Revenue is equivalent, but yields the benefit of lowered volume on alternate routes (which takes a “toll” in the form of increased wear and tear on those roads.)

    I realize there is no optimal solution, but I feel fairly certain that a toll reduction would have a revenue neutral effect, and might even increase revenue. I wonder what research was done to ascertain whether there was a certain toll amount that wouldn’t have affected overall usage as severely?

    • johnhcook

      I agree Brian. The tolls on 520 are pretty significant, and will certainly deter my use of the bridge. I wonder, however, at a $2 to $4 one-way price, whether I’d be more inclined to pay. I don’t have a problem paying that amount when I cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, for example.

      • http://twitter.com/tolli90 Toll I-90

        You’re on the right track, John and Brian.  Reasonable tolls on numerous routes would keep traffic at normal levels and not artifically jammed on a few routes. 

        Split the toll in half, toll both I-90 and SR-520.  It will be better for all commuters. http://tolli-90.com

    • http://valuvalu.com/ Emmanuel

      Even at $0.01, you won’t have the full 44% driving back through 520.

      With a price elasticity of demand of 0.25 (which is the one for gasoline, see http://www.cts.cv.ic.ac.uk/documents/publications/iccts00267.pdf), dropping the price from $3.5 to $2 would only bring back about 10% of traffic.

      That being said and up to your point, since the toll price is already changing over time, there is no reason why they couldn’t dynamically adjust it almost in real time. They’d constantly maintain the bridge close to full capacity.

      There’s no point in having an empty, expensive bridge if more people / cheaper fares would bring the same revenue. Such a dynamic pricing process would let the market find the best equilibrium point.

      • Brian Crouch

        Thanks, Emmanuel. I agree. 

  • http://twitter.com/puckyourself Joe McGrath

    You forgot to mention that Sound Transit and King County Metro are adding zero additional routes/buses (cause they don’t really care about people using mass transit, they care about money, which inevitably will be spent on something other than what it was originally for).

    • Linda @ KCMetro


      Metro and Sound Transit have added more than 130 bus trips on SR 520 over the past year. Most of it was done well in advance of the actual start of tolling, because the project was originally scheduled to start in the spring of 2011.

  • http://ourschoolpages.com/ Rajeev Goel

    The reason the toll is set at $3.50 one-way is that it has to be more expensive than a bus ride, otherwise nobody will switch to using public transit.  Currently a one-way Metro ride during peak hours is $3.00.  (And if you’re thinking a $3.00 bus fare is too high, think again.  For a single occupancy vehicle averaging 25 mpg, you’re spending about $4.00 in gas each way.)

    • Don

      Your math is sketchy.  Commuting from Montlake neighborhood to Microsoft is 10 miles one way, 20 miles round trip.  Gasoline today (regular) is $3.55/gallon or $0.142 per mile at 25 mpg.  10 miles one way means $1.42 in gas each way.  Add wear and tear (oil, tires, depreciation, etc.) and you are up to almost $3 each way to drive or $3 each way to bus.  Car is more convenient than bus and the same price as bus fare (absent bridge tolls).

  • http://threebrothers.org/brendan/ Brendan Ribera

    I’m surprised more people aren’t willing to try cycling. The I-90 trail is great. It’ll turn your commute into a satisfying, endorphin-filled endeavor rather than the soul crushing, money draining affair.

  • Leaving town

    Bag this – ya’ll elected these money grubber that had a $2bn + budge SURPLUS back in 2007-2008 but now were broke?  Ya’ll elected ’em ya’ll pay ’em.  Time to move out of the west coast taxachusetts.  I90 tolls are next – toll on air to follow and even with that Chrissy G still won’t have enough money…  If I had a company it would be leaving with me – oh that’s right I do have a company (a small one) but its leaving…

    • Anonymous

      Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

  • LouieInSeattle

    Luckily, I don’t take the 520 bridge to work, but it irritates me that The Avoiders are clogging I-90, which I did pay for in taxes.  And why the tolling expense for 40 years when all we had to do would be to raise the gas tax and have everyone share the cost?  That has been the model of all roads in Washington since the beginning of the state, until recently.  How much does the toll servicing cost?  The equipment?  It would cost nothing to add a penny or two to the gas tax. If forcing people to use buses is the object, then just make everyone pay for a yearly bus pass whether they use it or not.  If the goal is to reduce traffic congestion on 520 so the rich can drive across faster, then just limit the bridge to people who make more than $100,000 a year or who are millionaires.  You want social engineering?  You haven’t seen anything yet.  1984 was only a hint of the future.  

  • Anonymous

    This is how the government convince the sheeples on accepting more taxes! Oh this is good for you! Wake up people, this is theft!

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