Though Thursday was expected to be a light traffic day, many seem to be adjusting their patterns after the first day of State Route 520 tolling, based on increases in traffic to Interstate 90, a Washington State Department of Transportation official said.
The State Route 520 bridge is once again officially a toll bridge, after the electronic tolling system was activated at 5 a.m. Thursday morning. Commuters pay for the tolls through Good to Go, which is an electronic transponder that automatically draws money from an account set up by the motorist; or through the mail or an account via a photo system that identifies license plates.
WSDOT officials expected that there would be an adjustment period as some avoid paying the tolls by taking an alternate route -- or choose to take the bridge which is expected to have lighter traffic than it did before tolling.
"We saw a 45 percent reduction in traffic on the bridge during the morning peak hour," said WSDOT tolling official Craig Stone Thursday evening. There was a 20 percent increase in traffic on Interstate 90 from the same time earlier this week, he said, as well as a slight increase in traffic on State Route 522, which brings people around the north end of Lake Washington.
WSDOT officials had predicted a speed increase of 20 mph on the 520 Bridge after the tolling was instated.
Those numbers compare with traffic earlier this week, which is typically a light week as it falls between the Christmas and New Year's holidays, officials say.
But the real test will be Tuesday, when the University of Washington, just on the west end of the State Route 520 Bridge, will be back from break and many commuters have returned from their holidays, Stone said. Traffic is normally down 20 percent during the last weeks of December compared to more typical commute times year.
Stone said that even commuters who take the bus or who travel north and south on Interstates 5 and 405 should give themselves extra time on Tuesday for travelling.
During the morning peak commute hours, about 75 percent of motorists who crossed the bridge had a Good to Go account, Stone said, and the average for the day was 63 percent, as more people without accounts cross during non-peak hours.
However, about 6 percent of drivers had a transponder in their car but did not set up an account online or at a Washington State Department of Transportation service center. Those who have a transponder but no account set up will get the $1.50 extra fee for paying by mail, he said.
"We do encourage people to activate their pass online," Stone said. He said that employees at the service center at 13107 NE 20th St. in Bellevue can help customers set up accounts.
A total of 146,000 accounts have been activated since February and more than 222,000 passes sold. Up to six passes can be linked to the same account, according to the WSDOT.
There was a short period during the day when the customer service representatives were temporarily unable to access the accounts at the customer centers and wait times stretched to about 45 minutes at the Bellevue and University District centers, according to a WSDOT press release. Account holders were still able to access and activate accounts online, Stone said. Passes are available at five retail outlets: , , QFC, Safeway and Walgreens.
The toll ranges from $1.60 to $3.50 at peak time between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. on weekdays; the bridge is toll-free between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. People who pay by mail add $1.50 each way to the toll.