At this afternoon's Transportation Choices Coalition Friday forum (at which---truth in advertising---I was indeed the only reporter), state transportation officials offered an inside look at some of the less-known features of a proposal to toll the 520 bridge across Lake Washington.
Some of the things you may not know, but should:
1) Carpools have to pay the toll. Even if you carpool across the existing 520 bridge, you still have to pay the same toll as everyone. WSDOT will be evaluating what tolls to charge on the new bridge, but for now, get used to paying. (Transit buses, vanpools, emergency vehicles and police cars can cross for free).
2) There won't be any toll booths. Instead, drivers will have to buy a transponder (known as the Way to Go system) that attaches to their windshield or license plate; depending on which type you choose, they'll cost between $5 and $12 (and some of them can be moved from car to car). Individuals can get up to six transponders for their personal vehicles, and commercial drivers can get an unlimited number. The minimum amount of funds required to set up an account is $30; if you link the account to a bank account or credit card, it will replenish funds automatically for you to an amount you pre-set.
3) Don't want a transponder? Be prepared to pay. Drivers who don't want to install a transponder in their cars can still cross the bridge, but WSDOT cameras will take a photo of their license plates and send a bill to the registered owner of the car. Tolls for drivers without transponders will be $1.50 higher than the regular toll---meaning that if you're driving across the bridge at rush hour, you'll pay $5 each way instead of the normal $3.50. Even if you live out of state (or are a student with an out-of-state address), WSDOT has you covered---WSDOT tolling spokeswoman Janet Matkin said this afternoon that the agency has an information-sharing agreement with every other state in the country.
Odd side note: If you do opt out of the Way to Go system, you'll need to notify the state whenever your license plate number changes, or every six years.
4) Drive a Zipcar? (Maybe) prepare to pay. Matkin said WSDOT is "working with Zipcar to determine how they want to set up their account---whether they'll pay from a central account or charge the individual" Zipcar user. So you might have to pay your way across the bridge even if you're car-sharing, but that remains to be seen.
5) Electronic Benefits Transfer cards can be used to pay for tolls. I don't have much to add to that---it's just kind of cool.
6) WSDOT doesn't believe the hype: They estimate only about 15 percent of drivers will take another route. Despite a KING-5 poll finding that 75 percent of drivers said they'd switch to another route to avoid paying tolls on I-5, WSDOT estimates that only about 15 percent will actually do so. "There will be probably more diversion early on as people try different routes, and them some people will come back to 520 because it's a faster route," Matkin said. "It's worth it to them. Their time is valuable."
7) There's still a lot of uncertainty about the project. The biggest area of uncertainty about tolls is whether Tim Eyman's I-1053, which requires the legislature to vote on any fee increase, applies to tolls. If that's the case, a majority of the legislature will have to approve any toll on 520. That's one reason WSDOT has been vague about when tolls will start, saying only that they'll kick in sometime this spring. "Spring goes until June 21," Matkin pointed out.
The biggest area of uncertainty about the project in general is funding for the Seattle side of the project. WSDOT is still more than $2 billion short on the west side of the bridge, and has proposed tolling I-90 to make up the difference. The state legislature has been cool to the idea, and Eyman has already proposed an initiative for 2011 that would require toll revenues to pay for the road on which they're collected. That would both prohibit tolling on I-90 and sunset the 520 toll once the bridge is complete.
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