Traffic

Driving in Seattle might get tougher in November when tunnel tolls go into effect

Rush-hour traffic, traveling southbound on Highway 99 through the new Seattle tunnel on May 13, 2019. Tolls will go into effect in November.
Rush-hour traffic, traveling southbound on Highway 99 through the new Seattle tunnel on May 13, 2019. Tolls will go into effect in November. The Seattle Times

Travel through downtown Seattle could become even tougher on Nov. 9 when the state imposes tolls in the new Highway 99 tunnel, causing some drivers to divert onto surface streets.

Tolls will vary by time of day, from an afternoon-peak rate of $2.25 each direction to $1.50 during morning peaks and $1 on nights and weekends.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) announced the tolling start date Monday, which gives motorists just over two months to obtain an electronic GoodtoGo toll pass.

Patty Rubstello, WSDOT urban mobility director, urged drivers to avoid hassles by obtaining a pass now through GoodtoGo.com. The state is waiving its $5 startup fee for about 45,000 passes, if drivers affirm online they’ll use the tunnel.

Vehicle owners who already have a pass for WSDOT’s four other toll corridors can use those in the new tunnel without taking further action. Instead of toll booths, the tunnel portals have overhead detectors and cameras to record exiting vehicles.

Drivers who lack a GoodtoGo pass are billed by mail, with a $2 per trip surcharge.

WSDOT is moving ahead with the new tolls at a time when other corridors remain saturated during a five-year construction binge known as the Seattle Squeeze.

“Your commute decisions are community decisions,” said Heather Marx, downtown mobility director for the Seattle Department of Transportation, who urged people to ride transit. “So the decision you make about how you go to work and how you get back home is a decision that impacts everyone who does that commute.”

The new tolls come as work continues on car, truck and transit routes downtown.

Cars: Seventh Avenue North (the former Aurora Avenue North) is still only one lane in each direction during its rebuild near Denny Way. The completed four-lane road, plus turn lanes, won’t be done until next year.

On the waterfront, Seattle and the state expect to restore four lanes to surface Alaskan Way in September, instead of the current two lanes, as demolition of the nearby Alaskan Way Viaduct wraps up.

Traffic in the 99 tunnel, which opened Feb. 4, has steadily grown to 80,000 daily trips. That matches what the viaduct carried this decade but not the 105,000 trips in its heyday, when the viaduct provided three lanes each direction.

In the evening, southbound traffic on the way to the tunnel often clogs approach streets from South Lake Union, while morning congestion can stretch past the Aurora Bridge.

“The tunnel is a great way of getting through downtown, and that’s not going to change from tolling, so to the extent you’re using the tunnel now, keep using it,” said Marx.

Buses: Columbia Street is being rebuilt for east-west bus lanes from the waterfront to Third Avenue, but that won’t be done until January. Bus-only lanes along the waterfront are due by 2023, but in the meantime transit will flow with other traffic.

In a few weeks, the right lane of northbound Highway 99 through Sodo will be marked as bus-only, as occurred in 2012-18 during tunnel construction, WSDOT spokeswoman Laura Newborn said.

King County Metro says it will make a related announcement this week about solving the debacle on First Avenue South, where there are no bus lanes and afternoon traffic often slows to walking speed or slower. Metro wouldn’t divulge its plan Monday, but it has experimented with trips through the Second Avenue Extension South plus Fourth Avenue South, leaving downtown.

When the year began, elected leaders including Mayor Jenny Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine encouraged the public to use transit to survive the Seattle Squeeze. But some Highway 99 routes are losing riders because of slower trips, Metro acknowledges.

Sound Transit’s Route 550 to Bellevue lost more than 2,800 daily riders since being evicted – along with other buses – from the transit tunnel to the streets in March to make way for state convention center expansion.

Ferries: Colman Dock remains under reconstruction until 2023, which will cause periodic traffic and lane shifts. The King County Water Taxi and Kitsap Fast Ferries this month opened a new passenger terminal there. State ferry passengers will move soon to a new steel walkway from First Avenue, as the old bridge attached to the viaduct is removed.

Trains: Sound Transit will reduce light-rail capacity for 10 weeks starting in January while contractors connect future Eastside tracks to Seattle tracks at International District/Chinatown Station. Trains from both directions will halt at nearby Pioneer Square Station, where riders must walk onto another train to continue, or end their ride there.

The next major step in light-rail expansion is scheduled in 2021, when the University District, Roosevelt and Northgate stations open.

One reason traffic projects are colliding is the tunnel itself, which then-Gov. Christine Gregoire hoped to open at the end of 2015. If contractors and tunnel-boring machine Bertha stayed on schedule, instead of stalling next to Pioneer Square, the surrounding street projects might already be done.

Legislators required tolling to raise $400 million toward an estimated $2.8 billion cost when they approved the tunnel in 2009, but later reduced the target to $200 million. State executives decided that higher tolls would divert too much traffic to central Seattle.

Delays in tolling cost the state $1 million a month in debt payments, WSDOT has estimated. Why not wait until at least March, after winter street and transit construction projects at the ends of the tunnel catch up?

“We’ve looked at all of that, and there’s no perfect time to start tolling,” Rubstello said. “And we’ve just narrowed in, this is the right time. We want to get in front of the work Sound Transit’s going to be doing, and I’m sure that come spring, there’s going to be something else out there, that people want us to delay the tolling.”

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