NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Will State Route 520 toll make bridge backups mostly a thing of the past?

Last Thursday, after months of delays, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) finally began tolling the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge over Lake Washington. Collection of the toll (which is variable) began in the early morning with no fanfare or ceremony. Since that hour, there has been a cost to use the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge during daylight hours, and there will continue to be for decades – perhaps indefinitely, if tolling replaces the gas tax as a major revenue source for maintaining roads and bridges.

WSDOT’s planners had anticipated that usage of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge would decline following the imposition of the toll, and they were correct:

Traffic was light Thursday, typical for the week between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Drivers appeared to shift their commute to alternate routes after toll collections began. On the SR 520 floating bridge, traffic volumes were about 45 percent lower compared to earlier this week. Traffic volumes on the Interstate 90 bridge and on SR 522 were somewhat higher than normal for the holiday week. Travel times were not noticeably affected.

“This is about what we expected,” [Toll Division Director Craig] Stone said. “We know people are testing new routes to avoid the new tolled bridge. This is also a holiday week so overall traffic is unusually light. We want to make sure drivers are prepared for Jan. 3, when people head back to work and school is back in session. We expect to see a very different traffic picture then.”

Today is January 3rd. The morning commute is already over. So how was the traffic on the alternative routes? As it turns out not bad.

The Seattle Times reports that congestion on I-90 and SR 522, traffic wasn’t much worse than it is ordinarily is. Traffic volume on SR 520 was down, as expected, which made for faster travel times.

The evening commute is now about to get started.

What I’m curious to see is whether the toll will make the Great Lake Washington Lineup (also known as the Kirkland Crawl) a thing of the past.

I just came back across Lake Washington from Seattle less than an hour ago, and the bridge was eerily empty. Normally, around midday on a weekday, it’s busy. Not packed, but busy. Today, though? There was nobody anywhere near me. Nobody. I felt like I could have coasted to a stop, parked, stepped outside, and walked around… and I wouldn’t have been in anybody’s way!

Before I set off, I set up a dashcam so I could get a picture while making my way across the bridge. Here’s what the view was like:

SR 520 Floating Bridge at Midafternoon on Tuesday, January 3rd

Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI

As you can see, it was wide open.

The bridge won’t be wide open during rush hour. But if it’s only busy, rather than packed (as it has been for years), that will greatly cut down on delays… and possibly eliminate the Great Lake Washington Lineup as we know it.

For those who regularly use State Route 520 to get into or out of Seattle, the speedier travel times will be a real blessing. That goes for Sound Transit and Metro riders as well as drivers. With fewer backups and delays, the 542 and 545 Expresses (among other routes) will become more reliable, which will increase their popularity.

I-90, meanwhile, will likely be more crowded at all hours of the day, since it also goes across the lake and runs parallel to 520. Getting on or off Mercer Island may certainly become more challenging that it has been in the past during rush hour.

But taking I-90 isn’t the only way to avoid the toll. Some people will avoid paying it by taking transit. Others may use State Route 522. And still others will simply reduce the number of cross-lake trips they make.

Tollpayers, meanwhile, will enjoy a more reliable commute.

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One Comment

  1. The tolled bridge has certainly made Sound Transit’s 545 faster. Only problem now is that the bus is too popular. More service, please!

    # by Alex Stuckert :: January 8th, 2012 at 10:13 PM