Tolls on I-90 – probably just a matter of time

Jan 3, 2012

Many drivers seem to be avoiding the new tolls on the 520 bridge by taking I-90 instead. That’s not unexpected.

But don’t get used to calling the other bridge across the lake “The Freeway.” Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond says she wants tolls on both floating bridges.

You might have adjusted your commute in the past few days, to avoid the automated tolls across Lake Washington.

I-90, which is still toll-free, has suddenly become a much more popular alternative. But if you’re in the group that has switched to I-90 to save money on gas, don’t count on it.

The woman who’s in charge of the state’s Department of Transportation told a news conference, she’s in favor of adding tolls on I-90 as well. 

"I am … the feds aren’t there for us anymore,” she said. 

Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond spoke, surrounded by cameras and microphones, at a lunchtime press conference about the first day of non-holiday commuting, now that the automated Good to Go system has kicked in.

We're on our own

She was sweating under the TV lights, but not because she was rattled by the question. She's had this stance for a long time. And she says when this region built the Interstate system    between the 1960s and '80s – it was a different story.

She says back then, 90 percent of every project was paid for with federal highway user funds – in the form of gas tax.

“That’s gone. So now, we might get a grant here or there … but states are left to their own devices.” 

So they need tolls to pay for a replacement bridge. And the 520 is being replaced at a cost of more than $4-billion dollars.

Up to Legislature

Hammond says the new, automated “Good to Go” tolls are a user tax, which she feels should be implemented both bridges across Lake Washington.

“And In fact, 520 and I-90, as cross-lake bridges, operate as a system. And we'll see that – as we look at this diversion in the next few months – how well they operate together and how well the system as as a whole works or doesn’t work.” 

The diversion she’s talking about is the pattern WSDOT has observed so far since automated tolling began, a week ago: a reduction of traffic on the 520 bridge, at times by more than a third.

Ultimately, any new toll would have to be approved by the state legislature. A commission sets rates and lawmakers sign off.