Drivers may not mind, but state transportation officials this spring said they had lost confidence that a new contractor would launch Highway 99 tunnel tolls on schedule, records show.
State toll managers became wary enough that they’ll make a temporary deal with the existing statewide tolling contractor, to take over the tunnel-toll startup. That way, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) can begin charging drivers sometime this fall, as announced last month.
Then next year, the current operator will hand off the tunnel toll operations to the new company, Dallas-based ETAN, state toll-project engineer Jennifer Charlebois said in an interview.
The state misses $1 million in tunnel revenue each month of delay. That’s a manageable amount, but toll-division staff don’t want to wait much longer before they begin fulfilling the Legislature’s mandate that tolls defray $200 million in construction costs, Charlebois said.
Officials haven’t announced a start date for tunnel tolls. Trips remain free in the tunnel, which opened Feb. 4. Tolls will vary by time of day, from $1 overnight to $2.25 at afternoon peak, each direction.
In recent months, the state and ETAN repeatedly postponed the company’s date to complete and test its “back office” processing system, from Dec. 1, 2018, until Feb. 15, then May 17 and June 22, according to project documents released under the state Public Records Act.
“These continued delays have caused WSDOT to lose confidence in ETAN’s ability to predict when the system will meet the standards of readiness required for Go Live,” said a May 20 letter by Patty Rubstello, urban mobility and access director. She declared a readiness date of Sept. 1, now expected to slide.
In an email to the state in mid-May, ETAN chief executive Steven Levine commended state toll executives, calling them “true partners in the process.” He described extra technical specialists he assigned to finish the job.
“We take full responsibility for those delays and I, as CEO, apologize on behalf of the ETAN Tolling Team,” he wrote.
Transportation Secretary Roger Millar replied, “I do appreciate the attention that you as CEO have put into the week to week progress of this project. But your team continues to struggle to meet your expectations and ours.”
The company will earn $16 million to launch its new software, its contract says, followed by $29 million operating cost through early 2029 to manage five toll roads: Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Highway 167 high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes, I-405 express toll lanes, Highway 520 floating bridge and the Highway 99 tunnel. Each has its own prices, carpool-lane regulations and revenue fund.
The company agreed to pay $930,000 in penalties for the delay, according to a Nov. 30 memo.
“ETAN experienced some unexpected challenges with certain aspects of the legacy data and environment,” Tom Shivers, executive vice president for business development, told The Seattle Times by email. “However, those have been overcome and we look forward to a successful deployment.”
Shivers also wrote that its FastLane system would be “unequivocally the best tolling system in the world.” The technology could even be applied to ferries and parking, he wrote, though no such proposal is underway in Seattle.
The overhead toll equipment at Sodo and South Lake Union, which detects Good to Go transponders and license plates, is run by a different company and is ready.
Delays in tolling do create some public benefit. Motorists keep their money and drivers wanting to avoid the toll aren’t adding to Seattle’s crowded surface streets.
For financial-planning purposes, the state Transportation Commission, which sets toll rates, last year estimated a July 1, 2019, start. But WSDOT wanted to wait until the Alaskan Way Viaduct is demolished, so drivers dodging the toll won’t conflict with summer lane closures on waterfront Alaskan Way, said toll spokeswoman Emily Glad. Drivers will get at least one month’s notice before tolls begin, she said.
About 80,000 drivers a day use the double-deck tube between Sodo and South Lake Union, similar to what the Alaskan Way Viaduct carried from 2011-2018. Viaduct demolition teams have reached Pioneer Square and expect to be done by summer’s end.
A WSDOT financial study predicts that tolls would cause as many as 40 percent of drivers to divert onto other streets, choose transit or cancel trips. But that number is questionable. Diversion is less for higher-priced Highway 520, and the tunnel was priced deliberately low to encourage demand.
Toll revenues will cover $200 million of the $3.3 billion project cost for the tunnel, interchanges, street rebuilds and viaduct demolition. Toll income should also supply $170 million to maintain the tunnel and toll apparatus over a quarter century.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said lawmakers feel some angst, but the stakes go beyond tunnel income. ETAN’s software must work accurately for drivers on five highways. Therefore, any billing errors caused by rushing the transition would be politically disastrous, he said.
“We can deal with revenue losses, in future years. It’ll be much harder to overcome a lack of public confidence in the tolling system,” Fey said.
A $4.4 million tunnel-marketing campaign will resume when the toll date nears. For now, drivers who say they’ll use the Highway 99 tunnel can obtain windshield-based transponders for free, instead of paying a $5 fee, by ordering via the Good to Go website. Existing Good to Go transponders will work in the tunnel.
Charlebois said drivers will notice improved service. People will no longer need to deposit $30 into their Good to Go accounts to get started. A simpler website will appear, along with the ability to text or webchat with customer-service staff, she said.
WSDOT’s toll software has been late before, before a late-2011 launch on the old Highway 520 bridge. The winning vendor, Electronic Transaction Consultants, was charged a $2.4 million penalty, subtracted from its five-year, $29 million contract.
Now, negotiations are underway for ETC to stay onboard longer, helping the state out of a bind.