New 520 bridge, new tolls

The 520 bridge touches Medina and Points communities. Toll booths were used originally to pay for construction, but this time drivers will have money deducted from a pre-paid account when a transponder in their vehicle is electronically scanned. Photo by Chad Coleman.

The 520 bridge touches Medina and Points communities. Toll booths were used originally to pay for construction, but this time drivers will have money deducted from a pre-paid account when a transponder in their vehicle is electronically scanned. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Maks Goldenshteyn
Reporter Newspapers
There’s a certain irony to the story former Kirkland mayor and current state Rep. Larry Springer likes to share about the 520 bridge, a corridor he and friends would drag race across as juniors at Bellevue High School.
Back in 1964 starting at 11 o’clock at night, a year after the bridge was first opened to drivers, they’d head west until reaching the middle of the bridge deck, make a U-turn and race back to Bellevue.
“There was just nobody on it,” he said.
Thirty years later as a member of the Kirkland City Council, Springer was appointed to the first 520 Study Committee. It was understood that as the aging structure became more vulnerable to earthquakes and windstorms, and as congestion worsened with regional growth, something needed to be done. But in 18 months on the job, the 47-person committee “decided absolutely nothing,” he said.
Another 13 years after that, Springer finally got to vote on a 520 bridge, which only resulted in him being placed in yet another study committee.
“It’s like this bridge is imprinted in my brain,” he said.
Now on the SR 520 Legislative Workgroup, charged by Gov. Chris Gregoire with recommending financing and design options to her and the state Legislature by Jan. 1, 2010, Springer and other area lawmakers and community members could finally polish off plans in the coming months for a new bridge.
That means tolls.
Expected to open in 2014, the cost for the new and expanded six-lane corridor should be at around $4.65 billion. Drivers will likely pay a variable toll fee on the existing bridge starting sometime next year. It would cost around $3.60 to cross the bridge during peak hours, Springer said.
Interstate 90 will not be tolled to begin with, assuming that it and other corridors in the region aren’t significantly impacted by what happens on 520, according to state legislation.
Should tolling on 520 lead to gridlock elsewhere, lawmakers may revisit their options.
“If I-90 turns into a parking lot, we’re probably going to have to toll it,” said Springer, adding that many of his peers believe I-90 will have to be tolled at some point anyway.
Officials say 520 will be adopting the same electronic tolling system — called “Good to Go!” — that was recently implemented on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and on SR 167.
Drivers won’t be forced to stop at booths, but will need to install a small transponder inside their car, which would link up with an overhead antenna to deduct money from a prepaid account.
Drivers without transponders or those visiting from out of town would have their license plates photographed and would be invoiced for the cost of the toll later on. A surcharge would also be deducted for the cost of processing the video, according to WSDOT.
While stakeholders on the Eastside agreed on an interchange design over a year ago, one of the biggest hurdles left to clear is what to do with the Montlake interchange on the west end of the corridor, where construction will carry a much larger price tag.
The committee will look to mitigate impacts like building on wetlands and in historic areas, the effects on wildlife and appeasing neighborhood groups.
One potential conflict has also arisen over building on Foster Island, which was at one point a Native American tribal burial area, Springer said.
“What the goal is, is to see to see if we can bring those different community factions into one design that is within the funding target,” said Barbara Gilliland, who administrates the SR 520 Legislative Workgroup that held its first meeting July 29.
Gilliland said that of three proposed plans, two options appear to be the front-runners.
Under the first option, a second drawbridge would be added over the Montlake Cut. The other option calls for constructing a tunnel under the Montlake Cut in addition to an interchange under the 520 roadway.
Springer, who’ll be sitting in on the Westside interchange discussion, says he has no personal preference on the matter, so long as the bridge performs, has the required throughput capability and is within the budget.
“Other than that, they can string a rope bridge if they want to, and that’s OK with me,” he said.
Maks Goldenshteyn is a writer for the Kirkland Reporter. He can be contacted at mgoldenshteyn@kirklandreporter.com.