Cost of new 520 bridge is toughest on poor

Tolling on Highway 520 is likely to have a disproportionate effect on low-income people, according a study done for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

The fees, scheduled to begin in fall 2010, are likely to be variable, with a maximum rate of around $3.25 per trip during peak hours.

Relief for cash-strapped commuters is expected to come in the from a $41 million federal grant that will pay for 45 additional busses along the corridor.

“There’s no doubt that that this will be a challenge for low-income people, but the hope is that this transit investments will benefit them,” said Jamie Strausz-Clark, a consultant who directed the study for WSDOT.

WSDOT held a public hearing April 28 at the Bellevue King County Regional Library to discuss tolling on the bridge.

Mindi Pearson was at the event discussing her concerns with transportation officials. She shuttles back and forth on 520 several times a day to work as a hospital interpreter and substitute school teacher in both Seattle and Bellevue.

“I bounce around like a bouncy ball,” she said. “To pay a toll every time I went over the bridge would be absolutely insane.”

Busses may have to pay the fees as well, and it is not yet clear whether transit fares would increase if that were the case.

King County Metro is already facing a budget deficit approaching $100 million, according to Chris O’Claire, a senior planner with the agency.

Drivers will have numerous options for ponying up their tolls. They could ride with a $12 transponder that charges an account, pay in advance online or by phone, or wait for a bill to arrive in the mail after video captures their license plate number.

“We’re hoping most people get transponders, because that’s the easiest way to do it,” said WSDOT project engineer Jennifer Charlebois.

Construction on the 520 bridge is scheduled to begin in early 2011, with four lanes opening by 2014. The entire structure is expected to be completed in 2016.

Variable speed limits will also be in effect on the 520 and I-90 bridges later this year as part of a program aimed at relieving traffic congestion and buildups on Lake Washington.

“We’re definitely asking a lot of drivers, but it’s about safety and reducing collisions,” said WSDOT spokeswoman Victoria Tobin.

WSDOT also plans to add new interior HOV lanes to 520 in 2012.

Gov. Christine Gregoire is expected to sign into law this weekend a bill that would authorize tolling to begin on the 520 bridge before construction of the new crossing begins.

WSDOT’s traffic analyses suggest that a relatively small number of drivers will switch routes because of the fares.

“The first few times, they might divert, but they’ll probably realize it adds so much travel time that it’s not worth it,” Charelebois said.