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October 21, 2013 at 7:17 PM
The state will soon send 10,000 surveys to residents and businesspeople on Mercer Island, to find out when, how often, and in what direction they drive on Interstate-90 during the week of Nov. 17-23.
The forms include fill-in-the-blank questions about peak commute habits, and another about service workers, such as nannies, home-care aides, and landscapers. The back page looks like a standardized test, but easier. Mark the bubbles on a grid, for the number of trips taken in one of five time periods, for Sunday through Saturday.
Island residents continue to oppose state plans to toll I-90 to collect money to help finish the Highway 520 Bridge across Lake Washington. Citizens at a forum Monday at Mercer Island High School often expressed concern about teachers or elder-care workers who live off-island and can’t afford tolls.
John Parker, the school’s sound, video and performing arts center technician, testified at the event he was working. “Yes, I would have to quit my job if they toll,” he said later. He said he earns $47,000 a year, lives in West Seattle, and would have to spend at least $2,100 a year to keep driving to what he calls his dream job, if tolls are imposed.
Attendance at the forum peaked at about 300 people at 5:30 p.m., and the total was higher. A similar forum in January drew 800 people.
Craig Stone, tolling director for Washington State Department of Transportation, rolled out some compromise scenarios. In one, islanders might pay a half-toll. In another, they’d pay in only one direction.
Tolls would have to be authorized by the Legislature in 2015, so they might begin in late 2016 or early 2017, he said.
Unless there are more tolls, a gas-tax boost of 3 to 4 cents a gallon will be needed to pay off the 520 Bridge, he said.
Speakers at the forum cited problems on the Highway 520 Bridge — pontoon cracks and cost overruns, as a reason not to impose more tolls.
“There’s a lot of tolling fatigue,” said resident Owen Blauman, who greeted people at the front steps. He said multiple rounds of state process are wearing opponents down, and some are assuming they’ll catch a price break. “Bottom line is, why should there be tolls anyway? They [WSDOT] can’t manage the gas tax we’ve given them.”
Stone said WSDOT recognizes Mercer Island is a “unique situation” because I-90 is the only way to get there or leave it.
Mercer Island generates about one-fifth of the 160,000 daily cross lake trips on I-90, and seemingly four-fifths of the political controversy.
October 20, 2013 at 7:10 AM
Almost six years after Gov. Chris Gregoire first suggested tolling the I-90 bridge, the state government continues to study whether and how to do so — at a cost of up to $8.3 million just for the environmental studies.
State transportation staff again visit the eye of the storm from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday in a forum at Mercer Island High School, where they will take two-minute comments, and display graphics about various options. In this round of process, the public tells the state Department of Transportation what angles to examine in the environmental-impact statement.
The last session is Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle. A session was held in Bellevue on Oct. 10.
I-90 tolls are alluring to some legislators as a means to help fill a $1.4 billion gap in the Highway 520 project, which lacks enough money to complete a Montlake interchange and Portage Bay Bridge near I-5. But the DOT’s “purpose and need” statement says the main purpose is to control I-90 congestion, with money for 520 secondary. Many citizens have smelled a conspiracy: Impose 520 tolls that divert traffic, then cite I-90 crowding to justify I-90 tolls. Tolls have made travel quicker for those who can afford them on 520, and are seen as a way to balance a gradual decline in gas-tax revenue, as vehicles become fuel efficient.
In January, Mercer Islanders objected that they — as well as teachers, retail workers or home-improvement contractors who commute to The Rock – have no other way off the island and face an unfair burden, approaching $2,000 a year, if tolls are imposed. The DOT is considering options:
- Toll the freeway on just the Seattle side or the east side of the island, so islanders have one free direction.
- Arrange for special toll passes that let individual islanders choose which direction is free for them.
- Toll trips only entering the island, not leaving it — in effect, creating a 50 percent discount for round-trips by islanders.
- Instead of tolling all lanes, create one high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lane each direction from Seattle to Issaquah, where solo drivers can pay to join the quicker carpool lane. But a HOT lane raises only $250 million instead of the $1 billion goal, and might hinder express buses.
The state graphics include a chart of the public’s suggestions, such as widening I-90, adding transit, or seeking a boost in the gas tax, car-tab tax, or a new tax on vehicle miles traveled. Some of these add cost, and DOT says it takes a 3-cent statewide gas-tax hike just to pay off 520. So the environmental-impact statement might merely pay lip service to the non-toll scenarios.
Of course, effects of tolling go far beyond Mercer Island, as shown in this DOT plot of I-90 users’ residences.
Environmental studies were required by acts of the Legislature in 2012 and 2013. It’s currently illegal to toll one bridge to pay for another, so another bill would be needed. Meanwhile, the studies won’t be final until early 2015.
October 18, 2012 at 12:43 PM
The state Department of Transportation said Thursday morning that the bills for 350,000 toll transactions weren’t processed on time — so drivers can expect to receive their notices later than usual in the mail.
These bills apply to “pay by mail” transactions, when motorists lack a Good to Go account to have tolls electronically deducted. Cameras on the Highway 520 bridge and near the Tacoma Narrows eastbound bridge photograph license plates, and then toll contractor Electronic Transaction Consultants matches the plates with a Washington or out-of-state database, to obtain the owner’s mailing address.
Two-thirds of the overdue billings are for out-of-state vehicles, DOT said.
“If you drove one of the toll bridges this year and didn’t receive a bill, you’ll likely receive one soon,” said a statement by WSDOT Toll Division Director Craig Stone. “We apologize for the delay and we are working with our vendor to ensure this won’t happen again.”
Drivers will wonder if the delay puts them at greater risk of taking a $40 civil penalty, charged on tolls that go unpaid for 80 days. The answer is that the 80 days don’t begin until the toll bill is put in the mail by WSDOT, said spokeswoman Annie Johnson.
- (Times columnist Danny Westneat recently wrote about toll notices not reaching some bridge users and the subsequent fines that accrued: State turns a 520 bridge toll bill into paradox | Danny Westneat)
July 13, 2012 at 4:53 PM
If you are selling a car in Washington state, or might someday, this warning is for you.
Maureen O’Hagan, a reporter here at The Seattle Times, sold her used sedan to someone who later drove it a couple times on the Highway 520 floating bridge. She never owned a Good to Go toll pass, but the 520 cameras clicked the license plate — and a bill for $7.40 was mailed to her.
She filed a state Report of Sale for the VW Golf in February. But it turns out the buyer hadn’t yet filed an application for the car title. In that situation, the state data used by the toll contractor, Electronic Transaction Consultants, still shows the old owner, said Brad Benfield, spokesman for the state Department of Licensing.
O’Hagan says she made four phone calls totaling one hour, and made three inquiries online, and located her vehicle records. She initially wondered aloud if ETCC and Good to Go were conspiring to soak travelers.
“I should have just paid the $7,” she now says. The state has added a $5 processing fee, which will escalate if the dispute drags much longer. After 80 days, vehicle owners are charged a $40 civil penalty per unpaid trip. “It’s still up in the air,” she says.
She’s not alone. In six months since tolls began on 520, there were 89 cases in which a toll bill was dismissed by an administrative law judge because someone no longer owned the vehicle, according to state Department of Transportation figures. Undoubtedly there are more cases that haven’t reached the 80-day window to trigger a formal penalty and hearing process – or where people simply paid the bill rather than wade through red tape.
So what’s the solution?
Basically, the seller can drag the buyer by the scruff on the neck, figuratively speaking, to a neighborhood licensing agency and watch him sign the new title application. And keep a copy of each paper or online form.
Benfield said one of his own coworkers at DOL sold a used car to a dealership, got a toll bill after it was taken for a test drive, and contacted the dealer to solve the problem.
“It can happen to anybody,” he says.
Here’s how another Times reader paid for someone else’s trip: She forgot to scrape the toll pass off her windshield when she sold the car, so the buyer used her prepaid Good to Go account.
In all, about 92,400 people have reached the civil penalty phase, of which 1,600 bills were dismissed for various reasons, including the 89 challenges by ex-owners, says DOT spokeswoman Patty Michaud. Here is the official tolling information page, including a hotline number and a link to toll rates.
February 28, 2012 at 6:59 AM
Weather: Ready for snow? I’m told we’ll have it this evening, though I keep looking at different forecasts in hope of finding one that shows something else. So far, no luck. The good news is that it shouldn’t stick, so don’t worry (yet!) about commute problems. In the meantime, highs in the mid- to upper 40s today. More details are here, from the National Weather Service.
Traffic: It’s still early, but all looks clear on the highways except for the usual places. That power line that was down in Capitol Hill caused a mess until about 6:30 a.m. for traffic and bus lines. Maps and cams here.
A glitch in the Highway 520 bridge tolling system? Our partners at KING-TV found one: a local driver is getting tolling bills in the mail that should be going to a driver from Texas with the same license plate number.
And in other tolling news: The state now says it’s expecting only about half — $200 million — of what it originally planned to bring in by tolling the Highway 99 tunnel.
She otter be safe: Seiku is tucked away in the Seattle Aquarium’s exhibit with her mother and grandmother, which is lucky for her. In the wild, she’d be thought of as tasty.
Most read local stories on seattletimes.com this morning:
January 3, 2012 at 10:02 AM
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.
January 3, 2012 at 6:54 AM
Transportation officials closely watching traffic patterns on the first post-holiday work day since tolls started on the 520 bridge did not notice anything unexpected as the early morning commute got under way.
Traffic was light, as expected this early, but there were not yet any delays on alternate roads like Interstate 90 as of about 6:20 a.m., said Patty Michaud, a spokeswoman for the state department of transportation.
But Michaud cautioned it was still too early to know the impact of the tolling, which costs drivers up to $3.50 — plus a $1.50 surcharge for those without state-issued Good to Go stickers –during rush hour. Officials were expecting thousands of drivers to avoid the tolls by seeking alternate routes to work, potentially causing traffic problems on those roads.
“Commuters on all routes around Lake Washington should expect the unexpected tomorrow,” Toll Division Director Craig Stone of the Washington State Department of Transportation said in a statement released Monday evening. “While our ultimate goal is to improve traffic overall, it will take time, likely months, for drivers to make adjustments and for traffic patterns to settle into a new normal.”
What the “new normal” will be is still unknown, Michaud said.
For the time being, rush hour traffic is expected to start earlier and end later on all major area roads, with the exception 520.
Of course, a larger problem could be triggered by a car crash on Interstate 90 or another major road. The DOT said it has extra crews on hand to respond to accidents.
Michaud said more would be known about the impact on traffic at 7:30.
December 29, 2011 at 4:05 PM
Traffic has been increasing on I-90 on Thursday afternoon, while Highway 520 remained free-flowing because of the new $3.50 peak-time toll.
Traffic at 5:15 p.m. was stop and go both ways on western Mercer Island, while the 520 bridge had only a slight dip in speeds mid-span westbound, according to the state Department of Transportation congestion map. Just before 5 p.m., a drive into Seattle took 32 minutes on I-90 but only 17 minutes on 520.
This comes after a delay-free morning on both bridges. Traffic on the Highway 520 floating bridge was down about 45 percent compared to earlier this week, after tolls began at 5 a.m. today.
Toll-free Interstate 90 carried about 20 percent more vehicles in the morning but there were no slowdowns there or on Highway 522 around the north end of Lake Washington, Craig Stone, state tolling director, said this afternoon.
Those results were expected, considering the holiday drop in commuting. Friday should be even easier, as people take a four-day weekend, Stone predicted. Around 4 p.m., the floating bridges flowed well but southbound I-5 entering Seattle was clogged, a normal pattern.
As many as 75 percent of 520 motorists had a state Good to Go pass in the morning peak, and 65 percent did mid-day — well above the Department of Transportation’s opening day goal of 50 percent.
The only flaw so far was a computer freeze, around noon, that made it impossible for drivers to create a pass account at customer-service centers. That problem lasted a half hour, aggravating what could be a 45-minute delay for last-minute filers. People using goodtogo.org, the most popular way to sign up, were not affected. People without passes will have their license plates photographed and be billed in the mail for the toll, plus a $1.50 surcharge.
December 29, 2011 at 7:10 AM
Weather: We wish we could say something different here, but over the next five days, there’s either rain or the chance of rain or showers in the forecast. Oh joy. That means we greet the new year with gray and rainy weather. But there are fireworks, too! The details.
Traffic: Today’s the first day of tolling on the 520 bridge, as if we didn’t know. … Let’s see what happens. Traffic numbers down? It is a holiday week. Increased traffic on I-90? We’ll keep you posted. The map and cams.
KING5 tweet this morning:
WSDOT says the first tolled car to cross the 520 bridge was a Honda CR-V going 76 miles per hour!
Speaking of 520 bridge tolling: The GeekWire tech blog says at least seven apps have been developed to help commuters deal with the situation, including one called Toll Troll.
The Daily News in Longview has a list of its more interesting police blotter items for 2011, including this one:
Good dog: A woman reported locking her keys in her car with her dog inside at a Woodland gas station Aug. 31. A few minutes later she called back saying the dog unlocked the door for her.
Most-read stories on seattletimes.com this morning:
December 28, 2011 at 6:48 AM
Weather: Let’s see. Rain, showers, rain, showers, rain… You get the picture, today through Saturday. It’s warm this morning, though: 51 degrees. And quite windy. Small outages here and there. The details.
Traffic: The map and cams.
Shooting death in White Center: According to the blog White Center Now, there was a fatal shooting at the Seattle Roll Bakery during an armed robbery early this morning in White Center and authorities are looking for the shooter.
Stiffer penalties in DUI fatality cases: A state lawmaker and two prosecutors, including King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, want to up the penalties for people convicted in DUI fatality cases. They are expected to announce at a news conference this morning their support of proposed legislation to increase the sentencing range for such cases.
Tolling on the 520 bridge starts tomorrow. Are you ready? It’ll cost ya.
Having to pay for volunteers? The Peninsula Daily News has a story that says some organizations that rely on volunteers, such as fire departments, might have to pay to certify those volunteers …
If you haven’t already, have a look at Readers’ Photos of the Year. Some rather striking photographs.
Most-read stories on seattletimes.com this morning:
About The Today File
The Today File is a general news blog featuring real-time coverage of Seattle and the Northwest. It is reported by the news staff of The Seattle Times and edited by Assistant Metro Editor Nick Provenza.
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