Tolls on SR-520 bridge could impact congestion on I-90

Not only will users of the State Route 520 floating bridge pay tolls next year, travelers on Interstate 90 will likely be impacted by spillover traffic from drivers who don't want to pay.

That was the primary concern of a small but spirited group of Eastsiders who came to Bellevue City Hall Tuesday for a public hearing in front of the state Transportation Commission on a proposed $3.50 one-way, peak hour toll.

"What you are doing is penalizing the people that use the I-90 corridor," said Bellevue resident Bill Pott.

Washington State Department of Transportation Toll Director Craig Stone said he expects to see some extra congestion on I-90 as a result of the tolls. Drivers wary of paying for use of the bridge will head a couple miles south and further clog the already difficult I-90. Stone predicted that average speeds on I-90 would drop by 5-10 mph because of the increased congestion.

With this scenario more than possible, many citizens asked why the decision was made to toll SR-520, but not I-90. Political issues have caused one bridge to be tolled while the other remains free, said commissioner Dick Ford, and the potential of diverted traffic needs to be closely monitored.

"If diversion gets totally out of hand, we need to make some adjustments," he said. "Anybody that thinks in a logical way recognizes that both bridges should have been tolled."

The meeting was the second public affair in the last two days. A final meeting, where the commission will take a vote to institute the stated price level this spring, is scheduled for Jan. 5.

Toll rates will fluctuate based on the time of day, and the $3.50 peak price will apply to drivers who have an installed a Good-to-Go transponder on their vehicle.

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.

Toll 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. Tolls will not apply between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Tolling the bridge will">pay for improvements to the road on the Eastside, replacement of the bridge and new pontoons. Even with SR-520 toll revenue, WSDOT faces a funding gap of $2 billion for the $4.6 billion project.

The only wildcard left in the equation is the impact of the recently passed Initiative 1053. The initiative, which was written by Tim Eyman and passed with nearly 64 percent of the vote in the November 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.

Several citizens spoke of the tolls in terms of unfair taxation. Hans Gundersen told the commission the toll acts like a regressive tax that punishes workers who have to traverse the bridge at a higher frequency than others.

"This is essentially a toll attached to work, and it's aimed primarily on the middle and lower class," he said. "This is nothing other than an income tax essentially for the lower-paid people."

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