New tolls on the Highway 520 bridge have reduced traffic so much that drivers are commonly traveling at 65 mph, maybe three times as fast as they're used to.
New tolls on the Highway 520 bridge have reduced traffic so much that drivers are commonly traveling at 65 mph, maybe three times as fast as they’re used to.
“Clearly, 520 drivers’ adrenaline starts pumping when they see a road that’s usually a parking lot, wide open,” says Jim Bak, spokesman for the Kirkland-based INRIX traffic-data company.
Motorists are diverting to other roads, chiefly the toll-free Interstate 90 bridge. Regionally, commutes were 5 mph to 10 mph faster, because of the holidays, since tolls began on Dec. 29. Officials say this week will provide a more accurate picture — but on Friday the state Department of Transportation (DOT) hedged its bets by saying traffic might not settle until February, given the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Monday morning, the prevailing speed on 520 was around 62 mph heading to the Eastside at 8:40 a.m., at the same time there were slowdowns on I-90 across Mercer Island. Earlier, a collision blocked some I-90 lanes entering Seattle.
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INRIX’s analysis found, for example, that in the 5 p.m. hour on Jan. 3 the average speed approaching the bridge, heading from the Eastside to Seattle, was 65 mph near the 92nd Avenue Northeast overpass. Usually the average speed there is only 19 mph.
Toll rates vary by time of day, peaking at $3.50 each direction from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Speed limits are variable, but the top limit is 50 mph on the bridge and 60 mph on land approaches.
Some drivers are crossing before 7 a.m. when the toll is $2.80, reducing congestion in the morning peak, the DOT update says. As of Thursday, about 59,000 toll payers crossed the bridge — half the standard volume.
But officials warned the real picture won’t be clear until February, once the disruptions of Christmas, New Year’s and Martin Luther King Jr. Day are in the rearview mirror.
The tolled 520 bridge and the toll-free I-90 bridge have swapped roles somewhat, says Bak.
While the toll-bridge traffic moves faster than before, the I-90 speeds are slower, he said. For instance, at 6:18 p.m. Jan. 3, the westbound speed was 64 mph at Medina, and only 23 through the Mercer Island lid — a reversal of the normal 29 mph at Medina and 61 mph at Mercer Island. DOT says rain and crashes have contributed to I-90 slowdowns.
Some drivers say the toll bridge has become an executive highway, providing premium speed for the rich. The annual cost can exceed $1,600 if someone drives at peak times every workday.
But the decongestion helps transit riders, too, though some cross-lake buses are more crowded as people experiment with buses as an antidote to tolls.
Bryan Bucklin, of Seattle, estimates that his former 35- to 40-minute ride from Microsoft to Montlake is now as short as 15 minutes. “I intentionally started training myself to take the bus a year or so ago, in anticipation of tolling,” he said.
Friday morning on the bridge, someone driving the 50 mph speed limit at 8:40 a.m. would have been passed by a few dozen vehicles from Montlake to Medina, going roughly 65 mph.
In the westbound direction, a state trooper with red lights was following a driver across — however, there is no targeted speed patrol under way on 520, says Trooper Julie Startup.
The urge to speed is understandable, theorizes longtime Seattle resident Travis Winn, because so many Seattle streets have lower speed limits, bike lanes, curb barriers and higher parking fees. “I can imagine why people would want to,” said Winn, who was avoiding the toll bridge last week. “What’s wrong with going fast, when you can?”
Asked about the INRIX speed figures, a DOT spokeswoman replied: “We track travel times, we track traffic volumes, we do not intend to do speed studies in this area in the near future unless a safety issue develops. We are not an enforcement agency.”
206-515-5631 or email@example.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.