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520 tolls could push traffic into towns north of Lake Washington

SR 520 toll rate sign installation on the eastbound lane this past summer.
SR 520 toll rate sign installation on the eastbound lane this past summer.

It’s not yet clear exactly when, but sometime in December, the state Department of Transportation is due to start collecting tolls on the 520 Bridge.

Cities along the northern edge of Lake Washington have been bracing themselves for the change. 

Kenmore Mayor David Baker says they’re anticipating a lot of traffic along State Route 522 – that’s the extension of Lake City Way. It will be one of the most natural routes to take for Eastside drivers who don’t want to fork over money to cross the 520 bridge into Seattle.

“It’s approximately 50,000 cars a day that go through there now and these are people that don't contribute to the roads in Kenmore, yet are going to be causing major problems in Kenmore and the communities around us,” he said.

He says the highway is owned and should be maintained by the state – but more and more costs are being put on the local communities. They want money to help mitigate the impact of the new tolling.

What will drivers do?

But exactly what that impact will be is still a mystery.

"So there’s this whole new equilibrium that has to be sorted out," said Tyler Patterson, the toll operations engineer who’ll be taking care of the Good to Go system on the 520 bridge, once it kicks in.

Patterson says there are no models to look to for predictions, because communities from the East Coast to the Tacoma Narrows normally impose tolls on new bridges, not existing ones. He thinks it will be several months before the state really knows how many drivers are avoiding the 520 bridge routinely because of the fees, which can go as high as $5 one way at peak times.

“People are going to have either really positive experiences or negative ones. ... So we might have a big swing with everyone switching to I-90 and then hearing that 520 was totally wide open. Or, they switch to the bus and it was a terrific experience and they tell their friends, and the next day the bus is crammed full. And then they’re gonna switch,” Patterson said.

The new system

The newfangled system – called “Good to Go” – uses transponders and cameras instead of booths. Tolls will be deducted automatically from drivers’ prepaid accounts. Transponders are available by online order or at grocery stores (QFC, Fred Meyer, Safeway and Costco).

Firing up the new system is long overdue, because of difficulties with the transponders that will be used instead of coin-operated booths.

When it's running, however, the registered owner of a car without one will get a bill from the state. The tolls’ start date is expected to be announced later this week.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to