Whew. Commuters sailed effortlessly through the toll plaza and across the new Tacoma Narrows bridge Monday morning, much to the surprise of just about everyone.
Many feared that the first day of traffic on the new bridge would be a honking mess, with drivers fumbling for change and backing up traffic for miles on eastbound Highway 16.
That didn’t happen. Instead, morning commuters breezed through the notorious bottleneck at the Narrows faster than they have in years.
The afternoon commute appeared trouble-free, too, as uncongested traffic headed eastbound over the old bridge.
“Everything went GREAT!” commuter Jared Pedroza wrote in an e-mail. “Transponder worked GREAT! The new bridge looked GREAT! EVERYTHING WAS GREAT! I look forward to driving to work now! ITS GREAT!”
Not all responses were quite that enthusiastic, but drivers were definitely happy.
Jane Mouatassim, another Peninsula resident, said her commute was so fast it upset her routine.
“I went through so fast,” she said, “I was almost an hour early for work at Fort Lewis.”
Terry Reddick, who lives near Gig Harbor, said he thought the new bridge shaved a half hour off his usual weekday drive home from work in Auburn.
“It was like going across in the late evening,” said Reddick, 60, who crossed the old bridge between 4:30 and 5 p.m. to go home. “It was actually wonderful.”
The worst thing anybody could think of to say was that Monday was not a good test: People stayed home, they suggested, expecting a traffic snarl.
Partly true, said Janet Matkin, a state spokeswoman for the toll-taking operation. Traffic was down, but only 5 percent, she said, not enough to significantly change anything.
“We had 11,000 cars between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m.,” Matkin said. “Everything just came together. There was space between cars. It was not bumper to bumper at all. Ever.”
Matkin credited the success mainly to the number of drivers who used the transponder lanes. During the commute, 73 percent of drivers used the two left lanes, allowing them to bypass the tollbooths.
Others suspected that a large percentage of drivers might have used the transponder lanes even though they did not have transponders.
Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said that was the case for some, but not many, relatively speaking.
“Across the day, there were 1,173 people who ran through without transponders,” MacDonald said. “That’s about 4 percent.”
Those people should not automatically be considered “violators,” without further investigation, MacDonald said. Some people are having trouble with transponders not working or improperly applied, he said.
According to the state Department of Transportation, the first paying vehicle passed through the transponder lanes at 4:01 a.m. Two minutes later, a limousine driver paid the first $3 manual toll payment to an attendant staffing one of six tollbooths.
Over the next 70 minutes, the state reported a total of 1,621 toll payments.
Now that the new bridge is open, Tacoma Narrows Constructors’ attention is shifting to the 1950 bridge, which they will spend several months fixing up.
During that time, the old bridge will carry three westbound lanes of traffic – the two right lanes for general traffic and the left a car-pool lane for vehicles with two or more people aboard.
The far left lane will be closed during the reconstruction so TNC can use it as a construction staging area.
HOW TO GET A TRANSPONDER
There are five ways to sign up for a Good To Go transponder for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge or to learn more about it:
On the Net: www.wsdot.wa.gov/goodtogo
Fax: Send an application to 253-853-4235.
Mail: Applications can be mailed to PO Box 5050, Gig Harbor, WA 98335-5050.
In person: Customer service centers are located at 3212 50th St. Court, Suite 200, Gig Harbor, and 2115 S. 56th St., Suite 306, Tacoma. Employees will scan your transponder there to make sure it’s working.