SEATTLE - KING 5 News rode with Scott Lee this morning on his way across Lake Washington.
"I have a Good to Go pass," said Lee, referring to his electronic debit account that will automatically deduct tolls if he crosses the 520 bridge. "...but I'm only going to use that if I really have to. Otherwise, my commute's going to be on I-90 from now on."
Lee is a "diverter," and there may be 40,000 more out there who are also looking to avoid the toll. The question, will is still be worth avoiding 520 when you add in extra gas and time to go out of your way to take I-90 or take another route such as 522.
The Washington State Department of Transportation is making a financial bet that no more than 45 percent of the commuters who used to take 520 will make the same choice as Lee and avoid the toll. If WSDOT's right, it will be able to raise the $1 billion tolling will contribute to completing the new 520 bridge across the lake. And WSDOT considers that a conservative number, it expects the rate of diversion to be a much smaller number.
But if the state's estimates are wrong, or it looks to tolling as a way to fund the $2 billion required to rebuild 520 between the lake and I-5 near the University of Washington, more tolling could follow, and that would likely to come by tacking tolls onto I-90.
"Will I-90 come quickly? Will it take longer?" asks transportation secretary Paula Hammond. "I don't know. That's a legislative decision, and the legislature will be grappling with that this year and next."
Hammond is left with a tall job, meet the region's growing need for transportation while replacing aging infrastructure such as the 520 bridge that's vulnerable to earthquakes and severe storms. She says the days when the Federal Government ponied up most of the money for big road projects is over.
"No longer does the Federal Government pay 90 percent of the cost of a project," she said.
As more people drive hybrids and electric vehicles, the state has increasingly worried about the ability of the gas tax to fund projects over the long term.
But how much is too much makes tolling a tricky business. For those crossing 520 during the peak comute periods, that's $3.50 each way, or $7 a day, enough to buy a cheap lunch. But diverting can add five to 15 miles and many more minutes onto a trip to avoid the toll....the state betting that even at peak prices it's worth forking over the toll.
When the state started tolling for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge in 2007, the state had a captive audience. Diversion would involve a costly ferry ride along with lines, or a big drive around the south end of Puget Sound. But as the state plans to toll the new viaduct replacement tunnel under downtown Seattle, the diversion potential is abundant.
"You price that too high, and you divert people right into the city streets," said Hammond.