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SR 99 tunnel tolls
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WSDOT outlines concerns as tolling for Seattle tunnel approaches

Tolls begin in the SR 99 tunnel on Nov. 9, 2019. (Chris Sullivan, KIRO Radio)

We’re under two weeks away from the start of Seattle tunnel tolling. What has traffic managers and planners concerned as we inch toward tolling on November 9?

Prepare for backups when tolls begin in Seattle’s SR 99 tunnel

All we can do is guess where drivers will choose to go once tolling begins. Will they stay in the tunnel? Will they divert to avoid paying the toll? And that last question has about 50 other questions embedded it in.

Will people alter their schedules? Will they choose transit? Will they jump off 99 just before the tunnel? Will they bail from 99 earlier than that?

The one thing we can say for sure is that tolling will fundamentally change our traffic patterns. Jennifer Charlebois with the Washington Department of Transportation said about a third of drivers using the tunnel today could go somewhere else.

“We do expect there to be a drop in volumes,” she said. “Some of our predictions show around 35 percent or so.”

Heather Marx is Seattle’s director of downtown mobility, and she will be watching the surface streets carefully.

“We’re going to see more cars on Alaskan Way and on 1st Avenue,” she said. “More vehicles on the SR 99 exits and the alternative routes to SR 99.”

Seattle traffic engineers are ready to tweak signal timing and call out police to help direct traffic if necessary.

“We have pre-designed signal timing plans that we will be able to deploy at the press of a button, in order to address any difficulties that we see,” Marx said.

The police will be called out to help with blocking the box issues and bus lane violations to help keep traffic moving.

Charlebois said the state will be watching all exits to track where drivers are going.

“We’re going to be looking all over to find what changes we’re seeing, if we’re seeing changes in travel times and major changes in volumes,” she said.

So what, if anything, is keeping traffic managers awake at night?

WSDOT aims to ease transition for coming SR 99 tunnel tolls

For Chalebois, it’s the drivers.

“We want people to be ready,” she said. “We don’t want them to wait until the last day or the day after we start tolling to realize that they need to get a pass in their vehicle.”

Marx told me she’s confident in the planning.

“I sleep very well because I know all of us are prepared,” she noted

The state has given away 54,000 Good to Go sticker passes. That leaves about 6,000 left, but don’t wait. Tolling begins November 9. The first real commute will be two weeks from today on November 12, because Monday the 11th is a federal holiday for Veteran’s Day.

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