Motorists have driven the Highway 99 tunnel for free since February. That changes on Saturday, when the 2-mile tube under downtown becomes the nation’s 334th tollway.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) waited to impose tolls until after the Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition was finished. That allows lanes along the waterfront to reopen first, helping absorb a predicted 35 % of motorists who might choose surface streets rather than pay a tunnel toll.
Also, a new toll-billing contractor was late producing reliable software.
The Saturday start date was scheduled before the Sounders FC battled their way into a home championship match Sunday, so soccer fans will be among the first to pay the toll during traffic congestion.
About 60,000 people have received free Good to Go passes in a promotion that ended last week, and the state is spending $4.4 million on a marketing campaign about the tunnel tolls. At this point, motorists must buy passes for $5. Passes ordered online take five business days to arrive by mail, so orders made Friday are too late for the weekend toll startup.
Here are some frequently asked reader questions:
Q. What’s the toll cost?
A. Tolls vary by time of day, from $1 each direction on weekends, to a peak of $2.25 on weekday afternoons, each direction. The state could collect more money by charging higher tolls, but balked at prices that would provoke more motorists to divert into downtown surface streets.
Q. How are tolls collected?
A. Electronic cameras and sensors record a windshield-mounted, state-issued Good to Go transponder. These are linked by the billing contractors to a driver’s prepaid debit account. There are no toll booths or cash payments.
The state also offers a “Pay by Plate” alternative, to register a license plate number instead of using a transponder, at a 25-cent surcharge per trip.
Q. What if I don’t have a Good to Go account?
A. You will be billed by mail, plus a processing surcharge of $2 per trip. WSDOT says it will send bills to all states except Utah, which has strict laws guarding residents’ information. Vehicles from British Columbia and other Canadian provinces likewise aren’t billed.
Q. How do I get a Good to Go pass?
A. The simplest way is the GoodtoGo.com website. Follow the links to create a toll account, which requires an initial $30 balance. Payments from credit and debit cards, direct checking account transfers, and even cash are accepted.
Passes can also be purchased at Fred Meyer and QFC stores, in time for the weekend toll startup, though buyers must still register online for a Good to Go account. People who opened an account online but haven’t received windshield passes before using the tolled tunnel will be charged the 25-cent Pay by Plate fee.
Drivers can also visit a customer service center: Seattle at 4554 9th Ave. NE; Bellevue at 13107 NE 20th St., Suite 3; or Gig Harbor at 5801 Soundview Drive, Suite 50A. These service centers are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. To prepare for a rush of tunnel customers, the Seattle and Bellevue locations will be open until 5 p.m. this Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Sunday only, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, the Veterans Day holiday.
Those with questions can call the customer service hotline, 866-936-8246; send an email to email@example.com, or follow @goodtogoWSDOT on Twitter.
Q. Will my existing Good to Go pass work in the tunnel?
Q. Are carpools toll-free?
Free carpooling was never considered for Highway 99, because of the Legislature’s requirement that tolls cover $200 million in construction debt, said Shiv Batra, a Washington State Transportation Commission member from Mercer Island. Carpoolers pay standard rates on the Highway 520 and Tacoma Narrows bridges, where tolls go toward bond payments.
“If we let them go for free, certain facilities will not pay for themselves, and the toll will have to go up,” Batra said.
That’s different from I-405 express toll lanes, where carpooling is encouraged to manage traffic flow. Some 353,000 vehicles carry a FlexPass that drivers slide from green to red when carpooling on I-405 to claim a free trip.
FlexPass users in the tunnel will be charged general traffic rates. FlexPasses contain two transponder chips, so toll scanners can read either the green or red side.
Registered vanpools are toll-free. Private buses such as Microsoft Connector also travel free. And school buses, touring coaches with baggage space and tow trucks are exempt. Enrollment forms for toll-exempt vehicles are available online. Public transit buses aren’t using the tunnel.
Q. What about cabs or rental cars?
A. Uber and Lyft say their apps build the toll into the prices quoted to customers when they hail a ride that will take the tunnel. Eastside for Hire, which operates airport taxis, says its drivers have toll passes and simply tack on the basic price at the end of a ride.
Rental-car companies are charged tolls directly by the state. They typically make renters pay the tolls, and add service fees, such as $3.49 at Enterprise, or $5.95 at Hertz, for each day renters make at least one tolled trip. Read the fine print and ask about tolls in advance to avoid any surprises.
Q. Why toll the tunnel?
A. Toll money greased the wheels for a political compromise when the Legislature in 2009 voted to endorse a deep-bore tunnel — following closed-door talks involving Gov. Chris Gregoire, WSDOT executives, and Seattle business and community representatives.
The parties agreed toll proceeds should repay $400 million in debt. This was the increased cost for a tunnel, in excess of an estimated $2.4 billion elevated highway to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Lawmakers thought Seattle travelers should cover the extra cost instead of applying even more gasoline taxes from drivers across the state.
Three years later, WSDOT acknowledged its $400 million target required tolls exceeding $4, which would push drivers out of the tunnel and into surface streets. Lawmakers settled for a $200 million payback, plus money for maintenance.
Q. Are tolls unfair to low-income drivers?
A. The term “Lexus lanes” is often applied to corridors like the I-405 express toll lanes, where people pay to avoid congested general traffic lanes. Affluent people enter I-405 toll lanes most. However, low-income drivers are more likely to use them during severe congestion, pay close to $10, and benefit by saving the most time per trip, according to an equity study by University of Washington researchers.
Former state Rep. Mark Harmsworth of Mill Creek, a toll opponent, says lower-income commuters are more likely to live in Snohomish County and pay more because they drive farther on I-405 than King County residents, making the toll system unfair.
The Highway 99 tunnel is different, and the equity effects unclear. All lanes are charged, but at rates even lower than a standard $2.75 transit fare. The state will study the possibility of giving low-income drivers a price break on Washington toll roads.