The free ride may be over for thousands of geeks who cross Lake Washington each day on Interstate 90, one of two Lake Washington floating bridges that connect Seattle to the tech-heavy suburbs of Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland.
For the past year, drivers have had a clear choice: Jump on the state route 520 bridge where heavy tolls await, or bypass those fees altogether for the sometimes more congested and longer drives of southerly route along Interstate 90.
But now the state, which has collected $50 million in gross revenue since the electronic tolling program went into effect on the 520 bridge a year ago, is considering bringing tolls to I-90. Funds from the effort are expected to go toward a six-lane 520 bridge replacement, tentatively slated to open in 2015.
“What we will be doing in the new year, 2013, is studying the tolling of I-90,” said Craig Stone, assistant secretary for the WSDOT Toll Division.
That could have far-reaching implications on Seattle’s tech community, which is split between Seattle (home to Amazon, F5 Networks, Impinj, Zillow, and Zulily) and the Eastside (home to Expedia, Microsoft, Nintendo, Apptio and Concur).
Some companies such as Tableau Software and Google have taken to setting up operations on both sides of Lake Washington, driven in part by a desire to cater to tech professionals who’d rather not have to drive over one of the bridges. Meanwhile, Microsoft has instituted its own bus service, dubbed The Connector, to ferry workers between Redmond and Seattle.
Could we see more of those satellite offices if I-90 tolling goes into effect?
Probably. From my own personal experience, I try not to jump on the 520 bridge if I can help it, only occasionally taking the route.
In fact, WSDOT reports that traffic over the 520 bridge is down 30 percent since tolling was instituted last January. That means drivers who frequently take the 520 bridge, like GeekWire’s Todd Bishop, save an average of five minutes per trip. (See Todd’s personal analysis: A big day on the 520 bridge: Why I’m happy about the tolls)
Of course, tolling I-90 has some added challenges, since it is a federal interstate, versus the state route 520 bridge. Nonetheless, as it sounds right now, tolls may very well be in our future no matter what Lake Washington bridge we cross. How do you feel about that?