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State Transportation Commission agrees on $3.50 peak toll rates for SR-520

The state Transportation Commission on Tuesday tentatively proposed to set tolls of $3.50 (during peak hours of 7-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.) for Good to Go transponder users for the State Route 520 bridge.

The commission's recommendation will be up for a final vote Jan. 5. A preliminary vote was necessary as part of the legal process to form the Washington Administrative Code (WAC). There will be two opportunities for citizens to comment at public meetings in Seattle and Bellevue Dec. 6 and 7.

Anyone who doesn't have a transponder will be mailed a bill for driving across the bridge with an additional $1.50 charge. Those who initiate the extra payment receive a 50-cent break. Tolls prices on the weekend, a time when many infrequent users will cross the bridge, will decrease significantly. According to project documents, the cost will be $2.20 (during the 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. peak) for transponder users and $3.70 for the pay-by-mail option.

The decision features exemptions for emergency vehicles and transit, but not for any type of carpool. According to project documents at the meeting, tolls will not apply between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

As the comment period progresses, the recently passed Initiative 1053 looms over the decision. The initiative, which was written by Tim Eyman and passed with nearly 64 percent of the vote in this month's election, seeks to make the Legislature take a recorded vote on such a fee increase. The state continues to wait on an opinion from the Attorney General's office on this matter.

"If the Attorney General says this has to go to the Legislature, then this is nothing more than a recommendation," said Transportation Commission Vice-chair Richard Ford.

As promised, Eyman made an appearance at the all-day Bellevue meeting to rail against the process that allowed the commission to set toll rates, not the Legislature. He called the state government "a wild stallion" that needs a saddle, but he would still rather have elected officials make the tough decision on toll values.

"The people don't have the ability to hold any of you accountable," he said to the commission. "You can do anything you want, and there's nothing we can do about it."

Within the project documentation was a proposal to increase the toll prices by 2.5 percent annually, but many of the commissioners didn't want to box themselves in as far as pricing. Washington State Department of Transportation Tolling Director Craig Stone said the commission has the ability to alter the rates, but to do so it would have to go through the entire WAC process all over again.

Tolling the bridge is part of WSDOT's solution to a $2 billion funding gap for a $4.6 billion improvement to SR-520, including the construction of a new floating bridge over Lake Washington. State officials have said tolling of Interstate 90 may be considered if a superior alternative for funding doesn't materialize.

Stone said the implementation of tolling, which is slated to begin this spring, will cause some change in travel throughout the metro area. The state will be monitoring this as the system progresses to see what can be done.

"Our transportation network in the Seattle metro area will re-balance when tolling is introduced," he said. "We know for the first week, first day, first month, people might try something else. We know the system will balance out and stabilize over time, but it may take six months or more for people to think about their options."

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