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Originally published December 30, 2011 at 9:26 PM | Page modified December 31, 2011 at 10:08 AM

40,000 motorists avoid 520 tolling

The big test awaits Tuesday, the first day of normal commuting since tolls took effect. Only 44,300 vehicles took the 520 across Lake Washington on Thursday — the first day of the new electronic toll program — compared with 85,000 trips for a typical Dec. 29, and 112,000 trips for a normal commuting day. That's a 60 percent dip. But traffic was slightly higher than normal on I-90.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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quotes $140.00 a month with a GTG sticker! I'd drive around too! Or move! Read more
quotes I wonder how long until the state raises the toll price due to the unexpectedly low... Read more
quotes Don't ask for whom the bridge tolls. It tolls for you. Read more

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Maybe people are just out of money this late-holiday week, but 40,000 drivers are changing their route rather than pay a new Highway 520 floating bridge toll, new state data show.

Only 44,300 vehicles took the 520 across Lake Washington on Thursday — the first day of the new electronic toll program — compared with 85,000 trips for a typical Dec. 29, and 112,000 trips for a normal commuting day. That's a 60 percent dip.

But traffic was slightly higher than normal on I-90, where drivers saw plenty of brake lights heading across Mercer Island to Seattle in late afternoon, and westbound trips from downtown Bellevue took up to 40 minutes. Highway 522 through Bothell and Kenmore was near normal speeds.

Friday-morning traffic on Highway 520 looked even lighter than Thursday morning, officials said, probably because people began a four-day weekend. So, the total may trend down to 40,000 trips.

The opening-week trends are about as expected, said Craig Stone, state tolling director. In one financial forecast, as many as 45 percent of 520 bridge users would either detour, switch to transit or van pools, or stay home in the opening year, before traffic rebounds. State officials said that figure was conservative, and tolls would still support a proposed $1 billion in bond sales to help fund a $4.65 billion replacement highway.

This week's worst delays were at customer-service centers, where procrastinators waited 45 minutes Thursday to sign up for a Good to Go pass in the University District, and waited 35 minutes at the Bellevue center. A few retail stores in Ballard and Kirkland ran out of the Good to Go stickers, said Stone.

He urged travelers to prepare for Tuesday, the first normal commute day under tolls that escalate from $1.60 at 5 a.m. to $2.80 at 6 a.m., and top out at $3.50 from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., before declining midday. Transit and registered van pools don't pay.

Occasional users have the option of registering their license-plate numbers with the state instead of buying a windshield-mounted Good to Go transponder, then paying an extra 25 cents for each "pay by plate" trip. Unregistered drivers are billed by mail for the toll plus a $1.50 surcharge.

Stone said the state's toll-service centers and telephone hotline (1-866-936-8246) will be open Monday. Most people are signing up online at goodtogo.org.

In other highlights:

• About 75 percent of morning-peak travelers used a Good to Go transponder on the 520 bridge. The all-day average was 58 percent. The state's goal is 80 percent by late 2012, Stone said.

• Travel times on 520 were 10 to 12 minutes from Bellevue to Seattle on Thursday morning — significantly quicker than the usual 15- to 20-minute trip. On the slow end, an afternoon trip on Highway 522 took 40 to 45 minutes from Seattle to Bothell, compared with a normal 30 to 45 minutes. State Department of Transportation (DOT) staff noticed extra traffic in I-90 express lanes and on I-405, the latter from drivers going through downtown Bellevue to bypass 520.

• More than 153,000 new accounts and 229,000 transponders have been issued since February, mainly for 520 but also the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Highway 167 high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes. The DOT expects another 50,000 sign-ups next month.

• Drivers who received a $10 toll credit during DOT's early-2011 Good to Go promotion still have that credit, but won't see it on a statement until the end of January. That $10 in toll-free crossings must be redeemed by driving across the bridge before April 1.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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