Drivers won’t pay tolls to use the Highway 99 tunnel until sometime this fall, because alternate roads and a new toll-billing company aren’t yet ready, the state announced Wednesday.
No specific date has been chosen, said Emily Glad, toll spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
“This means drivers will be able to go toll-free for a little bit longer,” she said.
When the new four-lane tunnel under downtown Seattle opened Feb. 4, the state aimed to collect money from drivers sometime this summer. The state Transportation Commission, which sets toll rates, assumed a July 1 launch, but that was for financial forecasting purposes, not a firm start date.
Tolls will vary by time of day, from $1 on weekends to $2.25 in afternoon peaks.
Three issues have made a summer toll start infeasible.
First, the state has long planned to defer tolling until after demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct is done. That way, there will be better access to the surface of Alaskan Way, to absorb traffic when some drivers divert from Highway 99 to avoid the toll.
If tolling were to start now, drivers would encounter even worse congestion on Alaskan Way, where demolition crews are taking up two of the four lanes in some places, and on First Avenue, which is already overloaded at times with detouring buses that had used the viaduct.
Second, new billing contractor ETAN missed a Dec. 1 deadline to take over all five WSDOT toll routes, serving 50 million-plus trips annually, Glad said. These are Highway 167 high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes, I-405 express toll lanes, the Highway 520 floating bridge, the eastbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the Highway 99 tunnel.
“They have been making steady progress,” Glad said, but “their testing has demonstrated the system is not ready, and we have given them additional time to do the testing.” She said the state will bill ETAN a yet-undetermined fee for late delivery in the six-year, $15.7 million contract.
Third, several days are needed to perform tolling simulations in real traffic conditions, from electronic detection of cars to bill collection. The hardware is ready, as evidenced by purple flashing lights when your car passes the stadium-area toll gantry.
WSDOT paused its $4.4 million marketing campaign for the new section of highway that featured a smile-shaped tunnel diagram on billboards, but will resume in the fall when tolling draws near, Glad said. However, the state is still sending drivers the windshield-mounted toll transponders for free instead of the usual $5 charge. To request one, log onto 99tunnel.com/good-to-go.htm.
State lawmakers approved the tunnel in 2009 to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct and required that tolls raise $400 million toward the $3.2 billion project, including connecting streets. Later the state lowered the revenue goal to $200 million, facing reality that higher targets likely mean higher tolls and more traffic diversion.
Tolls will also provide a long-term revenue source to replace toll equipment.
Traffic inside the tunnel has averaged around 75,000 trips a day toll-free. On the Highway 520 bridge, volumes dropped about a third as drivers changed their routes, switched to transit or avoided trips in 2011, the first year tolls were charged.
WSDOT expects heavy traffic diversion initially when tolls are established in the tunnel, Glad said, with normal traffic returning as motorists perceive that the time savings is worth the price.