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Tolls coming to Lake Washington's SR-520, with unintended impacts

The 520 Floating Bridge, spanning Lake Washington between Seattle and the Eastside, June 12, 2010.

Tolls costing $7 for a peak-period round-trip are coming to the highway-520 floating bridge across Lake Washington.  The tolls, approved Wednesday night, will pay for a new, wider bridge – although that bridge won’t open until 2014, at the earliest.

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The tolls may not be a big deal for Microsoft engineers commuting from Green Lake to Redmond, or bankers and lawyers heading from Bellevue into downtown Seattle.  

But, the bridge also carries thousands of university students who live at home to save money.  And hundreds of pages of heartfelt testimony to the Washington State Transportation Commission describe the need to drive across the lake for appointments, or for a child attending a high-needs school. 

Eileen Rasnack, of Catholic Community Services, is concerned about her ability to recruit volunteers to drive elderly and disabled people.

“A lot of the transportation we are talking about is from the Eastside on 520 for medical appointments, particularly for people going through some kind of treatment for cancer,” she says. Those might entail several visits per week. Volunteers, some of them recently unemployed, might resist the extra expense.

Why not exempt some from the tolls?

Rasnack and others asked the Transportation Commission to create exemptions from the new tolls on the bridge.  Commission director Reema Griffith says that works for busses and official van-pools, but not everyone else.

“The problem comes down to enforcement,” she says. You have to have a way to make sure exemptions don’t become huge loopholes. The only extra exemption added at the last minute was for tow-trucks.

The electronic tolls also depend on having an electronic bank account.  If you’re too poor to have an account and want to pay by mail, the tolls are actually higher, to cover the cost of mailings. 

By law, the tolls have to bring in a consistent cash flow to pay off bonds totaling over $900 billion.  So, for every exemption, rates have to go up for everyone else.  The plan does call for discounts if you drive during off-peak hours, and bridge crossing will be free at night. 

The tolling dilemma

The tolls have been planned for years, as a compromise to get the legislature to fund a hugely expensive replacement for the aging bridge between Seattle and Medina.  But, Griffith admits it’s been a struggle for the commission to find a tolling scheme that balances the impact on financially struggling families.

“There's no doubt that tolling is going to have a negative impact on some people,” she says. “These types of projects could easily be built by an increase in the gas tax, that’s how we’ve traditionally done things.”

  But voters don’t want to raise the gas tax.  The federal government is chipping in to support extra bus service across 520. 

The tolls still will need ratification by a majority vote in the legislature.  They’re scheduled to take effect this spring.  You can order an electronic transponder from the state Department of Transportation.

Keith Seinfeld has been KPLU’s Health & Science Reporter since 2001, and prior to that covered the Environment beat. He’s been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.