State chooses tolls up to $2.25 for 99 tunnel, experts say expect congestion elsewhere

SEATTLE — The Washington State Transportation Commission decided Tuesday the likely toll structure for drivers taking the new 99 tunnel.

The choice, which was narrowed down from three choices, sets tolls from $1 overnight to $1.25 or $1.50 during the morning commute to a high of $2.25 during peak rush hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The tolls are set to increase by 3 percent every three years, starting in 2022.

​"That seems possibly a little high," commuter Blake Schwartz said, "but, I mean, consider people taking the 520 bridge — you've gotta pay more than that every day."

"I think that's a little more reasonable than the 520 [bridge], which can climb up pretty high," Sumeet Sharma said. "It can go up to four, five bucks sometimes."

The commission stated that the rates could change in the future, depending on the economy and growth, and how traffic is affected.

"It's a new alignment," said Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission. "People are going to use this tunnel differently. There's a lot to be learned."

Griffith said the commission will also review the potential escalations every three years to ensure they're needed.

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One of the biggest things the state will be watching is diversion, the number of cars that avoid the tolls and create more congestion on downtown streets or I-5. Griffith said the tolls are as low as they can go.

"We are confident we have minimized that diversion risk as much as possible," Griffith said.

Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center, explains those alternate routes will likely get worse.

"What we will see is, there will be diversion," he said. "Some people will decline to pay and they will take alternative routes."

He pointed to I-5, 4th Avenue, 2nd Avenue, and the waterfront as possible routes. He said smaller streets take longer to recover from gridlock than I-5 or the current viaduct.

"You can see the city of Seattle's concern over what happens downtown," he said. "That's why they're doing the study of, well, what if we did tolling on city streets? Which they really mean, around downtown Seattle."

The results of the city's study on tolling downtown is expected later this year. But it's not exactly a popular idea.

"It seems a bit ludicrous to me," commuter Tim Feth said. "It's already so miserable driving downtown, it doesn't make sense to me to charge people for the pleasure of driving downtown."

Said Sharma: "For me, if you're going to do that, then I'm totally switching to public transport."

As mandated by the legislature, the tunnel's tolls have to cover $200 million in construction costs, $129 million dollars in interest, $170 million in routine tunnel maintenance costs, and $496 million for collecting tolls, including everything from customer service to equipment. It adds up to nearly a billion dollars over 27 years.

Of course, some people have chosen to leave their cars and the tolls behind and pay in other ways.

"Now I prefer to walk on the ferry, and pay for a taxi or an Uber, just to not have to deal with the downtown traffic," commuter Lisa Woods said. "It's gridlock."

The Transportation Commission wants more public input on its choice before officially taking action and adopting those tolling rates in the fall. Drivers will be able to use the tunnel for free during the first few months after it opens.