Q13 FOX Season of Giving

For whom Bertha’s SR-99 tolls … toll?

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SEATTLE — Bertha’s breakthrough break through gets us one step closer to actually being able to drive in the new 99 tunnel. But don’t forget that it’s going to actually cost money with tolls—likely around the clock.

Anyone who drives toll routes, from Tacoma Narrows to SR-167, knows the rates and why they change takes a little understanding.

Rates are set by the Washington State Transportation Committee, and the different routes have different costs and needs, hence the wide gap in tolls.

SR 167 is by far the cheapest with a minimum 50-cent ride from Renton to Pacific, but it's an oddity. It has variable rates that can spike to $9 and is still technically a pilot project---despite being open since 2008.

Luckily, the rates haven't changed since then.

Then there's the flat fees of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It's $5 to $7 depending on how you pay. The Commission says it wants steady rates so they can manage debt payments, and looming equipment upgrades and repaving.

They are already raising alarm according to what we found---saying the fund balance will be in the red in four years, meaning tolls must go up or the Legislature must pay up.

I-405 has 17 miles of optional tolls and rates that have spiked toward $10 at times. The sticker shock didn't push people away though.

Usage was 20 percent higher than expected according to the Commission. Even with an average toll of $2.50, the lanes snagged $13.6 million more than expected. By law, that's dumped right back into an improvement fund for the road and could keep tolls lower in the future.

The 520 floating bridge is the model or maybe the canary in the coal mine.  The tolling committee says fewer people used the bridge than it anticipated, because drivers took other routes to avoid the new costs. They're prepping for the same with the new 99.

The story of tolls on the 520 bridge is all about timing. It's free to drive overnight but can be as high as $4.10 during rush hour. No surprise: many drivers don't want to pay, ever, so they find another way around.

That feeds into a nasty cycle with fewer drivers paying tolls meaning there is less money flowing into the state's coffers which often means higher tolls and on and on.

That's a very real concern for the Commission. For years, it's worried about what happens downtown, if drivers don't want to pay to take the tunnel.

It estimates 20 percent of traffic that would have taken the viaduct could be funneled onto city surface streets.  In the past, the Commission suggested that tolling at $1 all day long, and a $1.25 at peak times would be cheap enough that it wouldn't push people away, but consistent enough to actually pay the $200 million in construction debt.

Plus, the tunnel will have no downtown exits, so even if you are OK paying a toll to get downtown, you have to double back from the heart of Amazon, or just go right into the city.

It'll be a new commute--and it's coming very soon.