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Transportation Commission OKs SR-520 toll rates; issue will go back to Legislature

The state's Transportation Commission made a unanimous, but non-binding, decision Wednesday night to set peak toll rates for the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge over State Route 520 at $3.50 for peak hours.

Much of the weight was taken out of the commission's decision at a public meeting at Union Station in Seattle when the state Attorney General issued a decision last month stating toll rates must be subject to legislative approval because of passage of Initiative 1053.

The commission still had the authority to discuss and modify the rates, but any final decision must be made by the Legislature, as stipulated by 1053.

"Political pressure plus the Attorney General's opinion finally forces Olympia to comply with the will of the people," said Tim Eyman, the writer of the initiative that passed with 64 percent of the vote in November.

The Legislature has already dealt with tolling SR-520 once when it passed ESHB 2211 in April 2009 to authorize charging to pay for improvements. That bill passed the house 52-43 and 32-16 in the senate, and called upon the Transportation Commission to set variable rates. But proponents of 1053 want the decision to come back to the Legislature so the decisions, and the accountability for those decisions, can be traced back to elected officials.

"If the government is going to take more of the people's money, it's not too much to ask that they take a recorded vote, and if we don't like that decision, we can vote them out of office," Eyman said.

It remains unclear when the Legislature will decide on the tolling bill, and whether or not any changes will be made to prices.

Toll rates would 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 have their license plate photographed and received a bill for driving across the bridge with an additional $1.50 charge. Those who initiate the extra payment receive a 50-cent break.

Several individuals at the meeting said they would like to see the option of a toll booth as well as the transponders.

"It would be more convenient on the occasional time I cross the bridge to pay with the quarters in my pockets," said Rich Wright.

WSDOT Tolling Director Craig Stone said going to transponders reflects national trends as well as evolving technology that can eliminate the cost of employing toll workers and the traffic slowdown caused by waiting to pay.

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.

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