What experts call the most complex tolling project in North America — mixing busy stretches of roadway with stringent demands for tracking and accounting — is about to start.
Thousands of Seattle-area commuters will participate in an ambitious experiment when all-electronic tolling begins Thursday on the Highway 520 floating bridge.
This is the most complex tolling project in North America, experts say, because it combines one of the busiest stretches of roadway with the most stringent demands for tracking and accounting.
With each bridge crossing, most drivers will pay via a windshield-mounted pass that works like a debit card, at a variable rate of up to $3.50 at peak times. Or their license plate will be photographed, and they will receive a bill in the mail for the toll plus a $1.50 surcharge.
The technical reliability, the effects good or ill on regional traffic, and the sacrifices forced on individual drivers can be guessed, but not known, until we take the plunge.
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Tolls, which will be in effect for at least 40 years, are expected to collect half the $4.65 billion to deliver a new, six-lane bridge and roadway from Interstate 405 to I-5, with the rest from gas taxes and yet-unplanned sources.
About one-fourth of tolls charged will be spent to operate the toll system, pay insurance and credit-card fees or go uncollected. Many drivers are paranoid — with some basis in reality — that the government’s game plan is to let traffic clog nearby I-90, as people seek to avoid the 520 tolls, as a justification for tolling on that bridge, too.
Technical problems delayed the start of tolling for more than a year, depriving the state of about $1 million a week in expected revenue.
As for accounting challenges, the sheer intensity of traffic — nearly 30,000 cars per lane per weekday now — sets the 520 bridge in a league by itself. But the system has passed recent tests.
“If it can be made to work satisfactorily there, it can be made to work anywhere,” said Peter Samuels, editor of Toll Roads News.
Indeed, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is attempting a move to cashless tolling, after Seattle shows the way.
Almost certainly, there will be hiccups, said J.J. Eden, a former North Carolina Turnpike chief who led an expert panel to examine and fix this year’s 520 toll difficulties.
“I’ve never seen a system come alive without something,” he said. “They’re very high-tech computerized systems.” Whether problems are major is relative. Certainly it’s “major” for the fraction of drivers who receive an incorrect toll bill, he said.
This can happen. Mistaken citations for $52 were mailed last spring to more than 4,000 people who had crossed the Tacoma Narrows during a transition between tolling firms.
So buckle up for a potentially bumpy ride.
The possible benefit of so-called early tolling of the old bridge is smoother traveling for those willing and able to pay.
When tolls are high at rush hour, people drive less or change schedules, an idea known as “congestion pricing.” To help subsidize the experiment, the federal government provided $123 million for toll equipment and transit.
A peak-time drive across the 520 bridge is projected to be 20 mph faster, said Craig Stone, tolling director for the state Department of Transportation (DOT). But he’s the first to admit that traffic predictions can go wildly wrong.
This rosy scenario relies on a gamble — that Seattle’s already-stressed road network can withstand people driving farther to avoid paying tolls.
“You are going to have whole new congestion patterns,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. Some drivers will take the free I-90 bridge, or Highway 522 through Kenmore and Lake City.
Traffic could even increase as drivers backtrack on central I-5 between the University District and Beacon Hill.
If this leads to backups at Portage Bay, it would cancel the speed gains for toll payers. “We’ll be watching very closely how 520 merges to I-5,” Stone said.
Hallenbeck and other experts believe it will take six months for travelers to try different times, bridges and toll rates until traffic settles.
Puget Sound governments’ official transportation plan calls for less congestion in 2030, despite adding 1.1 million people — an impossible feat without widespread pricing of highways, Seattle analyst John Niles says.
Of course, the state needs continued use of the 520 bridge to support bonds to build the new bridge. A finance report says travel could drop by nearly half in 2012, then increase steadily, and the state still could support at least the $500 million in bonds sold this fall and three more large bond sales.
The tolling system for the 520 bridge is supposed to track as many as one vehicle per second at the busiest times, a daunting challenge.
Startups have run into trouble elsewhere. Florida filed a $2.6 million claim, saying its contractor didn’t activate equipment on time. In Illinois, millions of dollars in violation notices went out late because of back-office issues.
Louisiana and a tolling firm traded accusations related to system errors and shifting specifications, then settled those. Other states, notably Texas, had smoother experiences.
Only recently have a few other states installed cameras that can read a license plate at freeway speed when drivers lack a computer chip in the windshield.
The 520 bridge is outfitted with magnetic loops in the pavement to count axles; aerial cameras to snap two photos in front and one in the rear (using purplish flash lights to avoid distracting the salmon); overhead scanners to read the Good to Go transponders that most drivers will have; and lasers to confirm the space between each car.
Washington state plates can be read automatically, but photos of out-of-state plates, maybe 2,000 a day, will be checked manually by control-center employees.
Eden, who led the expert panel, said plates can be obscured by fog, drizzle and spray from rear tires. DOT’s front-plate photos are meant to reduce that problem, as well as rear plates covered by bicycles.
Stone says the strongest feature is 99.9 percent accuracy of Good to Go readings, which have proved themselves at Tacoma Narrows and the Highway 167 HOT (high-occupancy or toll) lanes in Kent. One risk, he said, is that wet weather, vibrations and bridge motion could shake toll readers and require recalibrations.
The main toll contractor, Texas-based Electronic Transaction Consultants (ETC), has ramped up this month by employing 200 people in the Seattle area to take phone calls, help with online accounts and process toll bills. ETC has a $23 million, five-year contract to operate three Washington toll roads.
State managers assure the system is ready, but they’ve been overly optimistic this year.
A spring ad campaign starring Bill Nye the Science Guy fizzled when the state missed its announced April startup. A backlog of violation notices then piled up in Tacoma, after assurances by DOT Secretary Paula Hammond that drivers would see a seamless transition.
On the other hand, Hammond struck a cautious note in her certification letter for the new 520 toll system: “I acknowledge that adjustments may be necessary during system stabilization.”
Are tolls a good deal?
The state likes to say its 35-cent floating-bridge toll in 1970 cost the same as a gallon of gas then, while its $3.50 peak toll in 2012 is similar to gas prices now.
But the tradition everywhere else is not to toll until drivers see a benefit.
British Columbia did not place tolls on the old 1964 Port Mann Bridge to fund the new 2013 bridge. Hampton Roads, Va., charges tolls on old bridges, but mainly to contain toll diversion on new crossings, said Robert Poole, transportation-policy director for the Reason Foundation.
Dick Ford, chairman of the Washington State Transportation Commission, says drivers are saving money through “early tolling” because the state won’t have to pay tens of millions of dollars for “interest on the interest” while the replacement bridge is built.
Bridge tolls in Seattle will be similar in price to those in San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C.
Hallenbeck says the tolls are a good deal for bridge drivers — if they aren’t snared at I-5. Time is valuable, and traffic on 520 has been slow since the 1980s, with few remedies available.
But for those who must go at peak times, the new toll means a $1,600 yearly hit. And it’s not like Highway 167, where someone can opt for free general lanes.
Delivery trucks, carpenters on house calls, taxi drivers, even food banks won’t get a break. Poole says it’s critical to add transit options, which King County Metro is doing with help from federal grants.
Tolls are scheduled to increase 2.5 percent a year until 2016, then by 15 percent in 2017.
Another drawback is the cost to collect a toll, compared to the negligible cost to collect gas taxes. State reports say 21 cents on every toll dollar will go to pay for toll operations and costs such as credit-card fees, based on experience at Tacoma Narrows. An additional 5 percent to 8 percent or more will be uncollected.
Stone hopes to improve efficiency and benefit from the so-called economy of scale as the Highway 99 tunnel is completed in 2016 and other toll routes are added.
Drivers can do their tiny part. Stone says the cost to collect a toll by mail is near $1.50 (hence a $1.50 surcharge), a cash toll at Tacoma costs 80 cents to collect, and Good to Go trips 30 cents. The more transponders, the better the system runs.
“As a resident,” Eden said, “you should get one, to lower the costs.”
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631
On Twitter @mikelindblom