State won't be ready on time, delays start of tolling on 520 bridge
Motorists won't have to pay tolls on the Highway 520 floating bridge until as late as June 2011, instead of October next year. Efforts to start electronic tolling are so complicated that the state wasn't going to be ready on time, according to an expert review panel.
Seattle Times (transportation reporter
Highway 520 tollsBased on time of day
Rates aren't decided yet. One option would support about $1.2 billion worth of bridge construction, if tolls begin in 2010 and increase above these levels when a new bridge opens in 2016. Separate rates apply for trips overnight, at peak hours, midday, nights and weekends.
Per one-way trip, 2010*:
Minimum: $1.50 weekdays
Average: $2.16 weekdays
Peak: $3.25 rush-hour commute
Weekend: $0.80 to $1.60
Source: 520 Tolling Implementation Committee Report to the Legislature, January 2009.
*Rates in 2007 dollars
Motorists won't have to pay tolls on the Highway 520 floating bridge until as late as June 2011, instead of October next year.
Efforts to start electronic tolling are so complicated that the state wasn't going to be ready on time, according to an expert review panel, which issued a draft report to top state lawmakers last week.
One problem was that the state was going to rely too much on expensive enforcement — including bills in the mail or traffic citations. The new approach calls for less stick and more carrot: For instance, drivers will be able to pay online if they cross 520 without a state-issued transponder.
Tolls will vary based on the time of day, so the busiest times will cost more. Rates might average $2.16 per one-way trip, or $3.25 at peak times.
There would be no toll booths. Instead, overhead devices would read windshield-mounted transponders to deduct money from drivers' prepaid debit accounts.
Tolls will help fund a new six-lane floating bridge just north of today's 520, which opened in 1963 and is at risk of sinking in a severe windstorm.
The new bridge is supposed to open in 2016, but that could slip, because no agreement exists yet on how to build the portion running through Seattle's Montlake neighborhood.
Funding is so short for a new 520 crossing, to cost at least $4 billion, that the state needs to start collecting tolls before it's even built — and maybe extend tolls to Interstate 90.
A few months of delay on charging tolls should not delay construction, said Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.
Each month that 520 isn't tolled costs the state about $2.8 million in missed income, said Craig Stone, tolling division manager for the state Department of Transportation.
Lawmakers have fronted some gas taxes to start building pontoons in Grays Harbor, but toll delays could have minor effects on cash flow for highway construction on land on the Eastside or at Montlake, he said.
The state and King County originally planned to begin tolling in 2009, with help from a $127 million federal grant designed to jump-start transportation experiments, including tolling equipment, buses and park-and-ride lots. Lawmakers punted a year on the controversial plan, to 2010, which has become 2011.
But Haugen said Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation, agreed to relax the 2010 deadline, so the money should still arrive as long as "a good-faith effort" is under way. And the state is seeking federal stimulus money, she said.
No toll booths
Highway 520 would be one of the first routes in the U.S. to use all-electronic tolling, with no booths. Drivers will roll through without stopping.
The new Tacoma Narrows Bridge uses mostly transponders but still has booths at the roadside for those who opt to pay cash.
Most 520 drivers are expected to use transponders. For those who don't, the original state plan was to photograph license plates, run the number through state licensing databases, and mail a bill.
But the experts want to cut down on costly, difficult billing systems. They criticized the state DOT's first 520 plan for "too great a reliance on post-pay toll enforcement, rather than prepaid accounts."
Haugen said she thinks the Tacoma tolling program messed up by using the municipal-court system like a collection agency. "If you went across it and accidentally didn't pay, you couldn't pay — you got a ticket," she said.
The latest plan will allow drivers four choices:
• Use transponders with a prepaid debit account, known as "Good to Go." That would apply to drivers who cross at least twice a week, Stone said.
• Create a prepaid account but register a license-plate number with the DOT, for people who cross once or twice a month. There could be a $1 surcharge per crossing, instead of paying $12 or more to get a transponder. Haugen said this helps the DOT, because inactive transponder accounts cost the state an average $16 a month to maintain.
• Go online to log your license number and pay a toll, within 72 hours after a trip.
• Do nothing. The state would find your plate in licensing databases and send a bill, plus an administrative fee of a few dollars. This makes sense for people who rarely cross — for instance, only to reach the Apple Cup football game, Stone said. Nonpayers would be referred to municipal courts after maybe two months, he said.
This fall, the state will choose one or more companies to handle the tolling startup work, worth $25 million in contracts.
The state DOT is hoping to beat its new deadline of June 4, 2011, by offering bidders a $100,000-per-week incentive to finish early, or imposing a $350,000-per-week penalty for being late.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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