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Originally published January 3, 2012 at 9:30 PM | Page modified January 4, 2012 at 7:31 AM

$3.50 ride takes a toll on 520 bridge traffic

Thousands of commuters found different ways of getting to work Tuesday as electronic tolling started on the Highway 520 bridge. Because of the holidays, Tuesday was considered the first big test of how commuters would react to the tolls.

Seattle Times staff reporters

quotes I'm spending about 20 extra miles a day spewing my SUV exhaust into the air. Still, an... Read more
quotes Expect Olympia to toll I - 90 and every other place they can toll. Read more
quotes John Barnett is correct when he calls the 520 bridge now a route for the privileged few... Read more

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Leslie Hayden, a CPA living in Kirkland, switched from Highway 520 to Interstate 90 on Tuesday morning to avoid the toll.

That added seven miles to her commute to downtown Seattle, but she said it was worth it.

Because Hayden's car gets 22 miles to the gallon and gas prices generally are at or above the $3.50 peak-hour toll, she figures she's saving money if she adds no more than 22 miles to her toll-avoiding trip.

The toll simply is too high, Hayden said. "I think the $3.50 each direction is overreaching. If I wanted to I could probably afford it, but a lot of people can't."

Hayden was among thousands of commuters who found different ways of getting to work Tuesday in response to the new Highway 520 bridge tolls. Electronic tolling started last week, but because of the holidays, Tuesday was considered the first big test of how commuters would react — paying the toll, switching to transit, finding alternate routes.

Rush-hour tolls cost up to $3.50, plus a $1.50 surcharge for those without state-issued Good to Go stickers.

Highway 520 traffic volumes on Tuesday were lower than usual both in the morning and the evening, the state Department of Transportation reported.

About 40 percent fewer vehicles than normal crossed the Highway 520 bridge Tuesday evening, completing the crossing four to 10 minutes faster than usual.

"It felt empty — a lot of elbow room on 520," Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said after traveling both cross-lake bridges during the morning commute.

Much of the traffic, as expected, shifted to I-90, where volumes were up 20 to 25 percent for the morning but only 3 to 7 percent in the evening.

Traffic also was heavier on Highway 522 between Seattle and Woodinville.

The drop in morning peak traffic on 520 wasn't as severe as the 40 to 45 percent drop forecast by transportation officials. But because some commuters may be taking extended vacations and others may be weighing their commute options on a day-to-day basis, the long-term impact of tolls on commuting habits remains uncertain.

Seattle-area traffic volumes were 10 percent off normal on Tuesday, DOT officials said.

Gurvinder Singh was one of six Puget Sound Energy employees who last week requested employer-paid ORCA Card bus passes. That may not be a big number, but it's a lot more than the one to 10 requests that PSE employees typically make in a month.

It's more convenient for Singh to drive from Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood to work in Bellevue, especially on the two days a week when he picks his children up from school, he said. "But then it became very expensive, starting today," he said of driving across the 520 bridge.

King County Metro expects ridership on its cross-lake routes to pick up by 15 percent as a result of the tolls, spokeswoman Linda Thielke said. Riders on several routes confirmed buses were more crowded Monday.

"There's usually about 10 people or so on the bus before I get on, and today the bus had only two seats open," Jenna Badu-Antwi wrote in an email as she rode the Route 545 bus between her Redmond home and her Colliers International marketing job in Seattle. "The ride itself is OK, just not as comfortable as before since bus is overcrowded."

Thielke said she also had heard reports of "cozy" buses, although she did not have any numbers. Some heavily used park-and-ride lots filled up earlier than usual, she said.

Metro, Sound Transit and Microsoft all have boosted their bus fleets to accommodate an expected surge in demand.

Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos said free Connector buses carrying employees from Seattle neighborhoods to the company's Redmond headquarters campus carried 5 to 30 percent more passengers than usual Tuesday.

Some area residents vowed never to pay the 520 toll, while some 520 commuters welcomed Tuesday's lighter traffic.

Kent resident John Barnett said congestion caused by commuters switching from Highway 520 has slowed his wife's trip along Interstate 405 to her job in Bellevue since last week.

Even worse, he wrote in an email, "The toll makes the 520 bridge a de facto private reserved highway for the privileged few who commute to high-salaried jobs while the average guy is left holding the bag with a worse commute."

DOT officials said traffic on I-405 north of I-90 increased, but travel times weren't significantly longer.

With little traffic on 520 Tuesday, Microsoft Windows program manager Caitlin Kehoe said her Connector trip from Fremont to Redmond "felt like a weekend — it was a breeze."

Kehoe, who sometimes bikes to work, looks forward to construction of a bridge with HOV lanes and bike-pedestrian lanes.

She said she believes tolls may be preferable to general taxes but understands some people's feeling that a toll bridge is "a rich person's highway."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105

or kervin@seattletimes.com

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