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SR 520 Bridge tolls expected to rise to make up for COVID shortfall

Toll rate sign showing peak period toll rates for drivers with a Good To Go! Pass and Pay By Mail customers. (Photo courtesy of WSDOT/Flickr)

Your trip across the State Route 520 Bridge is likely to get more expensive as tolls are expected to increase to make up for the lack of drivers.

The empty freeways that commuters have been enjoying for eight months come with a price. While fewer cars means less congestion, it also mean fewer dollars in the state’s tolling wallet. And while you might think the state having less money is no big deal, it will likely mean increases in toll prices, and potentially another hike in the gas tax. The state uses these tolls to pay back the bonds on tolled facilities.

In 520’s case, more than $900 million in bonds need to be paid back with toll money. That’s money the state has to pay back.

When the stay-at-home orders went into effect in March, use of the 520 bridge dropped more than 80%, and it’s still off more than 50%. That revenue needs to be made up, and Reema Griffith with the Washington State Transportation Commission said they’re looking at every possible way of doing it.

“The commission has been working with the treasurer’s office and the Department of Transportation to find every avenue we can take, utilizing our reserves and other approaches to refinancing to try to push off this toll increase, which we see as imminent,” she said.

The legislature might also be asked to increase the gas tax again to help make up the tolling shortfall. The last increase came in 2016.

Griffith said the easy answer is just to raise the tolls, but that’s a delicate conversation.

“There is a natural tension or tipping point for how high tolls can go before you actually end up suppressing traffic volumes even more,” she said. “Drivers are only going to pay so much to use that bridge.”

The max toll on the SR 520 Bridge is currently $6.30.

The 520 corridor was supposed to be done with toll increases several years ago, after the rates went up 5% a year for five years, but Griffith said a pandemic wasn’t on their radar.

“Based on forecasts, we were supposed to be done,” she said. “There was expectation for volume growth and other things to help carry it.”

Each tolled facility in the state is looking at this same problem. Toll-lane use is down nearly 40% statewide. And the financial condition of every route is different, based on the financing. The SR 99 tunnel only needs to raise $200 million in tolls over 30 years, but its revenue is off 50%.

Both I-405 and SR 167 have concerns as well. The only corridor that is holding together is Highway 16 over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge because it’s only off in the teens, and its reserve accounts are good.

It’s possible this lack of tolling revenue could push back planned expansions, like the finishing of the 520 corridor from Montlake to I-5, or the completion of 167. Griffith said that depends on how long we’re in this pandemic.

“Long-term is the question,” she said. “How long will this prolong? Will people really return to work?  What’s the long-term view of recovery?”

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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