Real test for SR 520 tolling begins today



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Posted on January 2, 2012 at 7:42 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jan 3 at 8:33 AM

SEATTLE - The New Year's holiday was the calm before the real "toll-mageddon." 

Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) officials expect the real test of tolling on SR 520 will begin Tuesday morning, when schools resume classes and people return to work after the Christmas holiday.

As of 7:30 a.m., traffic was moving smoothly on the SR 520 bridge, but was beginning to build on alternate routes such as I-90, I-405 and SR 522.  Drivers should plan for some delays on those alternate routes, but no major delays were reported.

Tolling on the 520 bridge is already impacting volumes on other roads. WSDOT said drivers wanting to avoid 520 on the first day of tolling last Thursday increased traffic on I-90 and SR 522 to typical work day levels.

Just over 44,000 drivers took 520, more than 141,000 drivers chose I-90. Just under 34,00 took SR 522. Engineers expect Tuesday morning's rush hour to be heavier than usual on all alternate routes.

The Kirkland 76 station on Bellevue Way sits at the crossroads of decision.  It's just off of 520. Go right and cross the bridge and pay the toll, go left to avoid it.

Brittany Shultz is a student who will be taking and paying for the 520 bridge.

“I think I'll take the 520 for school. If I don't have to go to school, probably I-90, save money,” she said.

That's the choice.  With DOT expecting a lot less traffic on 520, it's a better bet for a  faster crossing. 

But for toll free I-90, not so much.  That’s the bridge Ash Mazhari normally uses.

“I haven't had a chance to go to work yet since tolling has begun, but I'm pretty sure it's going to be a different commute come tomorrow morning,” Mazhari said Monday.

Then there are those who have no choice but to travel I-90. They live in the middle of Lake Washington on Mercer Island, like the Stone family. They expect to pay a different kind of toll - lost time stuck in traffic.

"Obviously Tuesday, will be the big teller," said Scott Stone.

It is Stone's wife, Rachael, who will face the true test. I-90 is her daily commute, and she knows it isn't going to be pretty.

"What I am concerned about is coming home on I-90," she said.

The region's transportation experts agree, Tuesday evening could be far worse than the morning commute. It is just the way traffic patterns have developed, explained Craig Stone, WSDOT's Tolling Director.

"Always the evening commute is our worst," said Stone.

If last week is any guide, 520 traffic could be off by half.  On Thursday and Friday, I-90 was up 15 percent in the mainline, 24 percent in the express lanes. Going north on 405 to I-5  was seven percent higher.  And State Route 522 though Lake City was busier than usual for a holiday commute. 

“It's going to take a while, say six months, to get to a new normal,” said Stone. He expects people will keep trying different routes different days until they find something that works, even if that means going back to 520 and paying the toll.

“I just want to make sure we think about this in the long term. We're into a 30/40 year program of tolling here. It's going to take us a while, we're just in the first days right now,” said Stone.

Get all your SR 520 bridge toll information in our special section

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KING 5 Photojournalist Ryan Coe contributed to this report.