Today the Seattle region begins a massive experiment in behavioral psychology and regional transportation. Following the holiday week, it’s the first real commute since the start of tolling on the State Route 520 bridge — a key artery connecting Seattle to the Eastside homes of many of the region’s biggest tech companies.

The variable toll is as much as $3.50 one way with an electronic pass during peak hours, which is no small expense for everyday commuters. As we reported last week, many of them are expected to seek alternative routes or take public transportation.

Which would be great for me.

For the sake of office harmony, I try not to mention this to my colleagues, but I’m in the enviable position of living about a mile from GeekWire HQ — walking distance on a nice day. So I’m not on the bridge every day. That said, I end up going to the Eastside one or two times a week, often during rush hour, for interviews and stories involving Microsoft and other companies headquartered there.

Despite my best efforts to give myself ample time, the commute over the bridge can be a huge crap shoot, and at times I’ve ended up sitting on the bridge and missing the beginning of things I was supposed to be covering. I’ll spare you the story of trying in vain to stream a Steve Ballmer speech over my car speakers via my phone while in standstill traffic over Lake Washington.

I completely understand and sympathize with the financial hardship that many regular commuters face as tolls begin. It adds up to more than $1,600 a year for people who commute at peak times. Without employer reimbursement, that’s like taking a pay cut.

But as an occasional commuter, I’m willing to pay a little extra for my periodic trips if it means a faster trip, and less stress. So I’ve got my Good to Go pass.

I hope the rest of you have lots of fun sitting on I-90.

Postscript: This post was inspired by a conversation I had on Twitter this morning with KIRO-TV’s traffic watcher Jenni Hogan, who had me call in to talk to her about it on air. Watch the segment here.

Comments

  • Guest

    Todd, thank you. If anything, the tolls on the 520 bridge are too low. I can afford a taxi or an Uber to take me out to the Eastside; why must I sit on the bridge with people who intend to pay a mere $7?

    Premium roads for premium people, Todd. It’s just common sense.

  • Bill

    If we actually wanted to fund roads and change behavior, the tools should have been on 520 and I-90. Somewhat lower tolls on both roads would have incented some to use mass transit but would have shared the burden. As is, the tolls will probably roughly the same number of people driving, but mostly trying to cross on I-90 with some going over the top on Lake City Way. Less revenue than expected with worse traffic tie-ups looks like the most likely outcome for the next few months.

    • johnhcook

      I agree. The heavy tolls means many folks will bypass 520 altogether, and while that may create less traffic on 520, I think it will cause additional problems elsewhere. I’d like to see lower tolls on both bridges, raising more money faster.

      What about true dynamic pricing on the bridges (like what Uber did over New Year’s Eve). The more cars there are on the bridges, the higher the tolls. That could be interesting. :)

      • Anonymous

        I think the current scheme is an approximation of dynamic pricing in that it charges higher during peak periods.  Frankly, I prefer the current system because you know in advance what it’s going to cost.  Determinism is a good thing.

      • Anonymous

        I think the current scheme is an approximation of dynamic pricing in that it charges higher during peak periods.  Frankly, I prefer the current system because you know in advance what it’s going to cost.  Determinism is a good thing.

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

    Have to admit, I’m happy I have absolutely no reason to cross Lake Washington, both living and working out of a home office on the Seattle side. However, it does mean I’m even less likely to take part in industry/networking events on the Eastside or shop at the cluster (of shops) that is the Bellevue Collection. But, on the plus side, the Toll Troll app is cool.

  • Greg

    I think Bill above in the comments has this right, that the problem is going to be way less revenue than WSDOT projected because they have badly underestimated how many people will shift to the I-90.  I think politicians thought they were being clever by avoiding a gas tax or other means of funding this project, but are going to find that, when people start getting bills in the mail and when WSDOT starts talking about tolling I-90, the political fallout is going to be severe.

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

    Todd, that’s not going to gain you a lot of empathy, but at least you’re being honest.

    The vast majority of people on all other commute routes are going to be negatively affected.  Not a fair or logical proposition.  Toll both bridges at half price.  More overall revenue, faster payoff time, reasonable rates, normal traffic flow.

    http://tolli-90.com

    • Guest

      Tolling interstate roads violates Federal rules on interstate highway standards. Existing interstate toll roads are the results of grandfather clauses and changes are strictly controlled there.

      In conclusion, proposing to toll I-90 is naïve at best and a Federal crime at worst.

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

        There are application procedures for new tolling on interstate highways through the Federal Highway Administration.  It has been done, and can be done.

        • Guest

          I’m sorry, but I simply cannot condone this. As it stands there are two ways to reach the Eastside: one at a cost (for those with money) and one without cost (for those without money and for truckers who provide valuable services). Tolling both is an undesirable compromise solution: it continues to beat the poor down (as we are wont to do in Seattle) and it raises prices for everyone.

          Toll I-90? No.

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

            “The poor” are now all forced onto less traffic routes than they were before.  This is better?  Longer commutes and more traffic for poorer people?  Half-price tolls on both bridges makes more money for the state, and at $1.75 or less, makes it affordable.

            Gas tax would’ve been better.  Too late.  We need a solution for today’s reality, and 520 tolls aren’t disappearing.

          • Guest

            A gas tax hits the poor hardest as they would have to pay even when they don’t leave the city. What’s next – taxing people based on their odometers so out-of-state mileage would still generate revenue for Washington?

            I’m in favour of keeping the status quo. The state will receive enough money from 520 tolls to build another 520 bridge for 520 commuters. Those who don’t play won’t pay.

          • Anonymous

            Have you ever driven in NYC? Boston? How about Rome or Naples?

            The reality is we are still cowboys out here in the West. We want our cars and SUV’s. Because we’re all such rugged individualists.

            One day – some day – we will ALL be taking cabs, trains and buses.  This isn’t a poor vs rich issue at all.

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

    Surface streets in local neighborhoods will be packed as well, additional wear to high-traffic byways will be created, and revenue on 520 will be less than projected. 

  • http://walawrealty.com marc_h

    Couldn’t agree more.  Making it from Kirkland to Queen Anne last Friday at 4:30 pm in about 20 minutes was awesome.  $5.75 for the round trip and I was literally laughing and talking to myself about how it was worth every penny.

    Ok, I was in somebody else’s car so that might have ben why I was laughing.

  • http://walawrealty.com marc_h

    Couldn’t agree more.  Making it from Kirkland to Queen Anne last Friday at 4:30 pm in about 20 minutes was awesome.  $5.75 for the round trip and I was literally laughing and talking to myself about how it was worth every penny.

    Ok, I was in somebody else’s car so that might have ben why I was laughing.

  • Occupy520

    I’m assuming that 520 is the bridge for the 1% and I-90 is for the 99%. Looking forward to Occupy 520 :)

    • Anonymous

      Perhaps said with tongue in cheek but must everything these days be viewed through a politic lens?  Like it’s a huge plot by those elitists at WSDOT.

  • Sceptic

    The question has to be asked: how much of these $3.50 goes to state since probably most of many cover “fees and expenses”  of operator

    • Guest

      I agree – implementing a higher gas tax to cover 520 and other infrastructure costs would have been much lower in overall overhead to collect.  I wish they would have raised gas taxes instead of tolling roads – it would have the same effect for a larger number of people in terms of using mass transportation and not sent a lot of money to an out of state toll technology provider.

  • Sceptic

    The question has to be asked: how much of these $3.50 goes to state since probably most of many cover “fees and expenses”  of operator

  • Hasbeeb Ajmalabad

    Chalk me up for another fan of tolling I90… I think a $1 each trip fee would be fantastic.

  • guest

    I am from the east coast.  We don’t we forgo this sliding scale non-sense.  People need to use the bridge when they need to use it.  Why not charge the average between the high and the low, which would probably be able $2.00?  That would help ease the pain of tolls and would probably reduce the number of defections to I-90.  But alas, governments on the west coast still don’t how to run tolls, turnpikes or public transportation.  They have created another clever minded fiasco.  

    • Guest

      If people need to use the bridge and their schedule is flexible, they can drive later in the evening or earlier in the morning. Contrast that with, say, New York, where the Verrazano costs $13 at 2:00 AM and $13 at 5:00 PM. That’s ridiculous. It should be free to drive on the bridge when traffic is light and much more expensive to drive when traffic is heavy.

    • Guest

      If people need to use the bridge and their schedule is flexible, they can drive later in the evening or earlier in the morning. Contrast that with, say, New York, where the Verrazano costs $13 at 2:00 AM and $13 at 5:00 PM. That’s ridiculous. It should be free to drive on the bridge when traffic is light and much more expensive to drive when traffic is heavy.

  • Guest

    I may be mistaken- please correct me if I am wrong,  but I-90 can not be tolled for WA benefit because it is a federal Hi-way.  

  • Anonymous

    I live in Seattle and work in Bellevue. The commute was a breeze today – a quick 20 minutes instead of 35+ (with frustrating variability that Todd describes). I don’t mind spending $7 since it meant I get a little more time for other things – like games with the kids before dinner or the ability to get to work sooner and start the day. But I take the bus most days so am not facing much of a financial impact. Maybe this will encourage more people to seek alternatives.

  • bridge troll

    I’m a cyclist, and I’ve been anxious for the tolls for a long time in hopes that it will change behavior. Do we all need to drive in our cars every single day? There are alternatives, and I’m hoping more people will adopt them now that driving isn’t as convenient. At the same time I realize NOT EVERYONE CAN RIDE A BIKE. I really do know that. But we all don’t have that excuse. I ride my bike to work everyday, and I did when I commuted from North Seattle to Microsoft and downtown Bellevue. You can put your bike on the bus for free to cross 520 on buses without route numbers eg: “Bellevue Base”, or “East Base” buses.

    Oh, and I also pay tabs on two vehicles (that I rarely drive) and pay property taxes. 

  • Fredy2

    People forget that the money spent on tolls is TAXED money, so the actual cost can be 20% to 35% more from your income.

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