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Originally published December 28, 2011 at 1:07 PM | Page modified December 29, 2011 at 8:15 AM

Questions and answers on Highway 520 toll

As tolling begins Thursday, here's a Q &A covering the basics.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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When tolling begins Thursday on the Highway 520 bridge, traffic will be much lighter than usual, state transportation officials say.

Traffic is usually down about 20 percent because of the holiday week — and that's before thousands of motorists choose to find another, toll-free route, such as the toll-free Interstate 90 bridge or Highway 522. The real test will come Tuesday, when more people return to work and the University of Washington begins winter classes.

Studies guess that 20 percent of the usual 110,000 daily vehicle trips will switch to I-90 and 15 percent will take transit, will take different roads, change their travel time or not travel.

When the week began, just one-fifth of bridge motorists had already put the Good to Go transponders — which work like debit cards — on their windshields.

But use may rise quickly.

About 140,000 new accounts have been created since February, mainly for Highway 520. Well over a quarter-million passes have been sold overall for 520, the Narrows Bridge and Highway 167 high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes combined.

Tolls, part of the funding plan for a new 520 bridge, vary by time of day. Peak times will cost the most: $3.50 each way. There are no tolls overnight.

Here are some frequently asked questions to get you acquainted with 520 tolling:

How do I get a Good to Go pass?

Go to goodtogo.org or call 866-936-8246, or see more information here.

How does the pass work?

You put money in an account and fasten the pass to your windshield. With each bridge crossing, money will be deducted from your account.

What if I don't have a pass?

Cameras photograph your license plate, and a bill is mailed to you for the toll, plus a $1.50 surcharge, within a week.

Do all vehicles pay the same rates?

Trucks pay higher rates, based on the number of axles.

What if I don't pay?

If the toll isn't paid 30 days after the bridge crossing, a $5 processing fee is added. Eighty days after the bridge trip, a $40 penalty is charged.

Are tolls charged on transit?

No. Transit buses and registered van pools are exempt, as are private lines such as Microsoft Connector that follow routine schedules.

If I don't use my pass, will it expire?

It will after 24 months of inactivity. The state will refund the money minus a $5 processing fee.

What if I drive a rental car?

Discuss toll-payment policies with your rental-car company ahead of time. Another option is to set up a short-term toll account with the state, up to 72 hours after crossing the bridge.

What if I cover my license plate?

It is illegal to drive with an altered plate, obscured plate, dirt-covered plate or even one covered with clear plastic, said state Trooper Cliff Pratt. Cameras shoot front and rear plates, so a bicycle rack over the trunk wouldn't thwart the system.

Why don't they post the real-time toll rate on electronic signs, before we exit to 520?

The state Department of Transportation didn't do so because tolls can change in the time it takes to drive to the 520 tolling point.

What does government do with my private information?

Toll records, including photos of vehicles, may be used only for toll collection and enforcement.

The 2010 Legislature passed Senate Bill 6499, which the American Civil Liberties Union calls the strongest U.S. privacy law for tollpayers. This is unlike some states, where toll records are used in police investigations or even released to divorce lawyers, the ACLU says. Washington state toll records are not releasable even by court order or search warrant, said Jennifer Shaw, deputy director for ACLU of Washington.

How long will tolls last?

At least 40 years, to pay off construction bonds sold over several years to pay for the new bridge.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631

or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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