Tolling on the old Highway 520 floating bridge is now expected to begin sometime in December, the state Department of Transportation announced Thursday.

Share story

Tolling on the old Highway 520 floating bridge is now expected to begin sometime in December, a year later than the state Department of Transportation (DOT) had initially hoped.

The delays are costing $1 million a week in lost toll revenues — money to support construction of a replacement bridge — and have caused tensions between the state and its tolling contractor.

“We’re confident we can start tolling SR 520 in December with a system that is reliable, accountable and able to handle more than 100,000 daily transactions,” David Dye, deputy transportation secretary, said Thursday.

At one point the state had announced a toll startup in April, and launched an extensive marketing blitz in February to encourage early sign-ups for the electronic “Good to Go” transponders.

Most Read Local Stories

Flash sale! Save 90% on digital access.

But the state’s contractors ran into problems, both with sluggish customer service and with the technical challenges of counting tolled trips and merging those into a new statewide toll-accounting system.

Craig Stone, urban-corridors administrator for the DOT, acknowledged Thursday that there has been “some overoptimism” by the state, “and clearly overoptimism by the vendor.”

The state initially had wanted to start tolling 520 as early as last fall, and received bids promising it could be done. Stone says he wasn’t convinced the proposals would succeed, so he solicited follow-up offers with a looser April deadline.

A new expert-review panel report concludes: “The schedule calling for toll collection in November 2010 was never realistic, despite the offer by all proposers to meet that date.”

The expert panel also advised the DOT to keep working with its toll firm, Texas-based Electronic Transaction Consultants (ETC), because firing it would add another 24 months of delay.

ETC will be docked $2 million from its $23 million contract, state officials say.

Challenges ahead

The December tolling launch would come after state voters decide on Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1125, which seeks to limit the ways DOT can use tolling.

Among other things, I-1125 — on the Nov. 8 ballot — would allow only flat-rate tolling, instead of the variable “congestion pricing” tolls the state wants to use in several locations, including on 520. Rates would vary by time of day from free overnight to $3.50 each way during the peak commute times.

It’s unclear exactly what would happen if I-1125 were to pass. The state DOT predicts that variable rates for 520 would stay on the books until at least early 2017, because the Legislature already has enacted an initial five-year rate schedule. Tolls are expected to repay $1 billion toward the $4.65 billion estimated cost of the 13-mile corridor from Seattle to Redmond. The four-lane Highway 520 bridge, built in 1963, is at risk of sinking in a severe windstorm.

The state remains at least $2 billion short of funding the entire project so will build a first phase — floating pontoons and road deck — by late 2014.

Before charging drivers to cross the existing bridge, the state must complete a 30-day live test that records driver trips and generates mock financial data — but people won’t be charged. That exam, suggested by the review panel, is more rigorous than a one-week test the state previously had required.

“We concur with the expert panel review and WSDOT that this is an innovative, industry-leading solution with new features that haven’t been implemented in the toll industry before,” ETC spokeswoman Carla Kienast said Thursday.

The company points out that Washington’s tolling system is unusually complicated. Besides the 520 project, ETC operates the statewide accounting system that tracks money from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the Highway 167 high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes.

The 520 bridge alone carries 110,000 cars a day now and would rely heavily on bill-by-mail. There will be no toll booths; drivers will pass through at highway speed and money will be deducted electronically from a prepaid debit account. Those who lack a “Good to Go” pass, including out-of-state visitors, will have their license plates photographed, then be mailed a bill for the toll plus a $1.50 surcharge.

Rough patch smoothed

An email exchange, released to The Seattle Times through a public-records request, shows how the relationship between the state and ETC went sour when the DOT missed its April tolling deadline.

ETC President Tim Gallagher objected to public statements by Washington transportation leaders about tolling glitches, and asked that its recovery efforts be treated as a “highly confidential matter.”

Dye replied: “I remind you Tim of the high cost of public accountability the department has paid and continues to pay for your firm’s failure to meet the requirements of this contract — the frustration Craig [Stone] expressed regarding adequate staffing must be addressed now to give us any hope of meeting the July opening date — you must act expeditiously or our entire approach to this project will change and trust me, you probably won’t like it.”

The company pledged to fix the problem, and relations have apparently improved.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com