Mixed bag for first commute with tolling in SR 99 tunnel
Tuesday was one of the most anticipated morning commutes in Seattle in a long time. This was our first real commute with tolling in effect on the new SR 99 tunnel through the city.
First, let me say that it would be easy to blame this morning’s awful commute exclusively on the tunnel, but that wouldn’t be fair. There was heavy rain, which always causes problems, and we had some accidents, including one on southbound I-5 near Mercer Street that blocked two lanes. Because of that, commuters were already behind the eight ball when the tunnel diversion started.
My initial unscientific impression is that most commuters diverting from the tunnel went to I-5. The northbound commute started much earlier, and it filled-in much faster. For a lot of the morning, it was over an hour to make the drive from Southcenter and Tukwila into downtown. That’s a 20 to 30 minutes more than a typical Tuesday.
The southbound drive filled in quickly, but you could attribute that to an accident near Mercer. The southbound express lanes did see a lot more volume as a bypass through Seattle. They were backed up significantly too, although surface streets handled some diversion as well.
It wasn’t until about 8:30 a.m. that we saw the first real slowing in the northbound tunnel. By that time, I think people were faced with the real question in all of this: What is your time worth? Will you sit in 30 to 50 minute delays, or simply pay $1.50?
It puts commuters over a barrel, but that is our new reality, at least after one morning commute. We’ll have to wait for a few months to see how this all shakes out, but consider this: Even eight years after tolling began on the 520 Bridge, the traffic counts are still down by 17 percent.