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520 tolls? Few motorists care

A new poll from PEMCO Insurance shows that nearly half of drivers polled in the Puget Sound region use the now-tolled State Route 520 bridge just as often as they did before the toll, despite projections from about six out of 10 drivers who said they planned to change their route to avoid paying the variable toll once it went into effect.

In April 2010, PEMCO asked drivers in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties if the impending toll would change their driving behavior, and 62 percent said they would use the SR 520 bridge less often.

In reality, about half as many – 38 percent – avoid crossing the 520 bridge now that the toll is in place, according to PEMCO’s most recent results. What’s more, in 2010 only a quarter said they would use the bridge the same amount when it was tolled, but in 2012 nearly double – 46 percent – admit to crossing the bridge just as often.

“There’s no question many of us have seen traffic decrease over the 520 bridge during our commutes. But our data shows that drivers’ behavior isn’t quite lining up with how they predicted they’d react to the toll,” said PEMCO spokesperson Jon Osterberg.

While PEMCO’s results show that many drivers still opt for SR 520, there are some who have indeed changed their behavior since bridge tolls began. Those who say they commute across SR 520 at least once per week show the greatest change in driving behavior.

Of those who use SR 520 to commute, one quarter say they ride the bus more often to avoid the cost of the bridge toll. Another 26 percent say they carpool for the same reason.

Perhaps less surprising, 57 percent of weekly commuters say they use I-90 instead of SR 520 as a result of the state-mandated toll.

The SR 520 bridge over Lake Washington officially began tolling on Dec. 29, 2011, to subsidize funding for a new bridge. The toll changes depending on the time of day and day of the week, from no charge between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. to $3.59 (rush hour on weekdays) for commuters with a “Good To Go!” transponder pass issued by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Rates for commuters without a pass are more expensive, ranging from $2.67 to $5.13 per trip.

Drivers already have seen a 2.5 percent rate increase since tolling began, and three more 2.5 percent increases are planned by 2015; a 15 percent increase is planned for the summer of 2016.

“It’ll be interesting to monitor how commuters’ driving habits change as the toll rate increases,” said Osterberg. “We’ll continue to track drivers’ behaviors and perceptions. Perhaps the higher the toll goes, the more likely commuters will use alternate routes to avoid it, but we’ll have to wait for the data.”

To learn more about the PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll and to view a summary of the results, visit www.pemco.com/poll, where the public is invited to take an informal version of the poll and see how their own responses compare with those collected by FBK Research of Seattle in April 2012.

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