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January 3, 2012 at 10:02 AM

Update: Even with 520 bridge tolls, morning commute relatively smooth

UPDATE: 12:40 p.m.

Highway 520 across Lake Washington was “pretty wide open” during this morning’s commute as thousands of drivers switched to Interstate 90 or took other measures to avoid tolls,  said state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.

The trip across 520 was about five minutes faster than usual, I-90 about five minutes slower — until a truck dropped part of its load of rebar, snarling the eastbound commute — Hammond said. Overall, the number of vehicles crossing Lake Washington or going around its north end was about 10 percent below a normal weekday.

The drop in overall traffic may have reflected more people extending their New Year’s vacation, taking the bus instead of driving, or staying home, Hammond said.

Congestion on I-90 and Highway 522 could be worse during the afternoon commute, when volumes typically are higher, said Craig Stone, state tolling director.

Officials closely watched the morning commute to see how it would be impacted by tolling on the 520 bridge. The tolls, which cost up to $3.50 plus a $1.50 surcharge for those without state-issued Good to Go stickers during rush hour, began Dec. 29, but that was during the holiday week between Christmas and New Years.

Nearly 13,000 vehicles crossed the 520 bridge between 5 and 9 a.m., said Patricia Michaud, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. That’s about 30 percent lower than before tolling began. About 80 percent of them had state-issued Good to Go stickers that automatically pay tolling fees, she said.

Meanwhile, alternate routes like Interstate 90 and State Route 522 appeared in good shape during the early commute. Officials had expected rush hour on those roads to start earlier and end later.

Bill Cadwallader, who commutes across I-90 from Belleveue’s Enetai neighborhood to work at the South Lake Union biotech firm Kineta, said it was “tough to say” if traffic was heavier than usual, because traffic was backed up due to a semi that lost part of its load on Mercer Island. “Once I cleared the backup it was smooth sailing,” Cadwallader said.

While drivers reported a relatively smooth trip, some bus riders said they had less leg room.

Jenna Badu-Antwi said that was the case on the 545 bus between Redmond and Seattle.

“There’s usually about 10 people or so on the bus before I get on and today the bus had only two seats open,” the marketing coordinator at Colliers International wrote in an email while on board the bus. “The ride itself is OK, just not as comfortable as before since bus is overcrowded.”

Linda Thielke, a spokeswoman for King County Metro, said she had also heard reports of “cozy” buses, although she did not yet have any numbers.

The agency is expecting ridership to pick up 15 percent as a result of the tolls, Thielke said.

Comments | More in Traffic & Transit | Topics: 520 bridge, buses, commute

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