SEATTLE - Drivers are experiencing their first non-holiday weekday commute with tolling on the SR 520 bridge. And so far, so good. But transportation officials say Tuesday evening's commute could be a lot worse.
WSDOT had expected Tuesday morning to be the real test of tolling on SR 520, as schools resume classes and people return to work after the Christmas holiday.
Fewer drivers took SR 520 and choose alternate routes around Lake Washington, such as I-90 and SR 522. But even with increased traffic on those alternate routes, WSDOT officials said it wasn't too far above normal weekday levels.
Most drivers agreed the commute wasn't all that much different.
"It was the best commute we ever had. It was amazing," said one 520 driver. "Everybody was getting off at the first exit at Lake Washington Boulevard."
"I took I-5. It's not as open as it was during Christmas break, it's not as bad as it's been other times," said another driver. "Couldn't see any difference."
"I think more people are going to wait and get on I-90 than go up to 520, so it made that intersection much more busy," said another driver.
WSDOT said between 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., traffic volumes on SR 520 was 37% lower than the average work week. About 83% of those vehicles had Good to Go passes compared to last week.
On Highway 522 through Kenmore, traffic was more congested than normal, likely due to drivers trying new routes around the 520 toll, say engineers. 522 is the most logical route for eastsiders to avoid tolls on 520.
“Things appear a little bit worse than normal,” said Morgan Balogh , WSDOT traffic engineer. “That area is often congested, but today we’re seeing more.”
WSDOT originally predicted about 5% of 520 drivers will re-route to 522. That adds up to about 6,000 additional vehicles. About 50,000 vehicles use 522 everyday.
The region's transportation experts say 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.
Stone says it could be awhile before we know what the new "normal" commute is.
“It's going to take a while, say six months, to get to a new normal," said Stone.
Stone 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.
In anticipation of the start of tolling, King County Metro and Sound Transit added 130 daily bus trips to routes on SR 520 for a total of 700 every weekday. Service has been increased on existing lines, and expanded into some areas that didn’t have bus service before.
“I’m saving $1752 per year taking the bus,” said Shea Untie, a rider at the Park and Ride in Bothell. “This is the best way for me to get to work and avoid the tolls. It’s a two for one.”
Get all your SR 520 bridge toll information in our 520 special section
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KING 5's Natalie Swaby, Jake Whittenberg and Teresa Yuan contributed to this report.