Get ready for tolls on 520 bridge on Dec. 29
In three weeks, thousands of drivers will pay to cross the old Highway 520 floating bridge. The Dec. 29 launch, announced Wednesday by the...
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Toll service centersGOOD TO GO passes for Highway 520, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Highway 167 HOT lanes, and workers to handle payments or questions, are at:
University District, Seattle: 4554 Ninth Ave. N.E., Suite 100, open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends.
Bellevue: 13107 N.E. 20th St., Suite 4, open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends.
Gig Harbor: 3212 50th Street Court N.W., Suite 200, off Olympic Drive. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
Source: State Department of Transportation
In three weeks, thousands of drivers will pay to cross the old Highway 520 floating bridge.
The Dec. 29 launch, announced Wednesday by the state, comes months after the hoped-for April start, because the state and its contractors ran into technical problems while they tested a system to track and bill drivers electronically. During that delay, the Department of Transportation missed out on $1 million a week that stayed in drivers' pockets.
If the system works as planned, tolls will help raise money for a new floating bridge, while reducing traffic at peak times.
The added cost for a commuter driving at peak hours could exceed $1,600 a year.
Meanwhile, a giant casting basin is being built along Grays Harbor, to construct pontoons so the floating section of the new 520 can open by late 2014. Transportation managers say they needed to start collecting tolls soon, to have enough cash flow to pay pontoon builders. The fixed-bridge portions at the Seattle side are unfunded and many years off.
As both regular and occasional users of the 1963-vintage bridge consider how tolling will affect their lives, here is a basic overview:
What will I pay?
Tolls will vary by time of day among several rates, such as free overnight, $2.20 on weekend afternoons, or $3.50 at peak commute times, in each direction. Those prices are for motorists who use a state-issued "Good to Go" sticker.
Money is electronically debited from a state account as vehicles pass through at highway speed. There are no toll booths on 520.
Cars without the sticker will be billed by mail and charged an extra $1.50, about equal to the extra cost of processing.
Drivers also can use a "pay by plate" system, allowing them to sign up online to make a trip using a prepaid account, at the standard rate plus 25 cents.
Tolls are higher for trucks and trailers. A three-axle vehicle with a state toll sticker would pay $5.25 each way during peak times, for instance.
Public-transit agencies, as well as registered van pools and registered private buses, are exempt from tolls. Carpools and motorcycles pay the normal toll rate.
How do I sign up?
The state's toll website is goodtogo.org (phone hotline is 866-936-8246) to set up an account and order a toll sticker. Drivers prepay into their own state toll account, using a debit or credit card, or they can arrange for an automatic draw from their bank account into the Good to Go account. It will take four or five business days for a sticker to arrive by mail.
Or visit a customer-service center in the University District, Bellevue or Gig Harbor. The basic $5 windshield stickers are also sold at QFC, Costco, Fred Meyer and Safeway stores — but make sure to activate them online using the state website or phone line. Characteristically, Costco is selling a pair of $5 stickers for $9 total.
The roving "Good to Go" van will make several stops this month to take orders, including downtown Seattle, Medina and Kirkland on Thursday.
How does it work?
The basic $5 sticker goes on the windshield of a car — a good place is behind the rearview mirror where it won't block the driver's vision. Each one contains a computer chip. The chips are read by overhead sensors, now mounted in the steel truss at the 520 bridge's east high rise.
Other pass types include a Velcro-mounted version that costs $8 and can be switched among cars. Motorcycle passes, which are small, clear and can be stuck to the headlamp, are $8. A license-plate mounted pass is $12.
Look up while driving, and you can see purplish lights flash as overhead cameras photograph license plates. They are nearly infrared, to create a flash without distracting salmon, tolls spokeswoman Janet Matkin said. All plates are photographed, but only cars without the stickers are entered into databases for bill-by-mail, she said.
Any Good to Go pass also will work on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which will keep its toll booths for the near future; and the Highway 167 has "HOT lanes," where solo drivers can pay a toll to enter the quicker carpool lane.
What if I don't pay?
People who cross without a pass and fail to respond to a mailed bill will be rebilled in 30 days for an extra $5. If that goes unpaid another 50 days, a notice of civil penalty will be issued, similar to a parking ticket, for $40 plus accumulated tolls and fees. A private, state-contracted collection agency then contacts the motorist, who will not be able to renew Washington state license tabs without paying up, Matkin said.
How might tolls affect traffic?
Some of the 110,000 or so vehicles per weekday that cross Highway 520 will divert to Interstate 90, not tolled, or go around the north end of Lake Washington on Highway 522. Craig Stone, state toll director, predicts it will take six months for everybody to try the options, weigh their time and costs and settle into a routine.
Because of reduced traffic, speeds on the floating bridge are expected to increase 20 mph in peak hours, while averaging 5 to 10 mph slower on 522 and I-90, Stone said. Traffic predictions can be far off the mark, Stone acknowledges.
This is an experiment. The federal government wants to try out so-called congestion pricing — and it has awarded $123 million in grants to subsidize buses, toll equipment and other expenses. The Dec. 29 startup comes just before a Dec. 31 contract extension by the feds, who initially awarded the grant under President George W. Bush's administration in summer 2007.
A young startup company, SeaBalt Solutions, sees fear of tolling as a business opportunity, and created an iPhone app called Toll Avoider (signup.tollavoider.com). Drivers can type in a destination and find that hour's toll rate, a suggested free alternative and route maps.
"I think it's great — we've spurred innovation in the private sector," quipped deputy transportation Secretary David Dye.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom.
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