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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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