A year after 520 tolling began, state eyeing expansion to I-90

SEATTLE -- Despite complaints about incorrect charges and toll confusion, state officials say the first year of 520 Bridge tolling went even better than expected.

Now those officials are eyeing bigger moves, such as adding tolling to I-90. On Thursday, the Department of Transportation laid out what's been fixed, and when tolls will go beyond the bridge.

"This was actually very unique across the country," tolling director Craig Stone said of the bridge. "We're very pleased with it -- it's been a great program -- but it's early, we're only one year into it."

In fact, WSDOT says 96 percent of all drivers are now paying their tolls within 80 days, and a full 84 percent are using the state's Good to Go passes. The passes automatically deduct toll costs from a user's prepaid account.

The state says it collected $50 million during the first year of tolling. Ultimately, tolls on the 520 are expected to bring in $1 billion of the $4.1 billion cost of the new bridge.

"We're on track, but we're only one year into a 30-plus year program here for paying for this bridge," Stone said.

The first year has had its share of problems, with drivers complaining of unearned violations and incorrect bills, but the state says most of those problems have been fixed.

At the same time, drivers have changed their habits. Traffic on 520 is down 30 percent from its pre-tolling volume, and some of those drivers -- about 11 percent -- have switched over to I-90. Overall cross-lake volume is down by five percent, but the state isn't done with traffic tinkering.

"We will be studying tolling of I-90," Stone said.

Over the next year, the state will examine tolls on I-90 for the legislature's consideration in 2014. The earliest I-90 tolling could be possible is in 2015.

Stone said I-90 tolling could pay for the still unfunded part of the new 520 Bridge project.

"We have a $1.4 billion gap on the 520 corridor," he said. "We have Portage Bay Bridge that has hollow columns in it and needs to be replaced. The question before the legislature is how do you finance that?"

Another big milestone arrived in December. It's the first month that the worst tolling scofflaws will not be able to renew their vehicle tabs. WSDOT says they've put registration holds on about 10,000 vehicles this month, and those drivers can't get new car tabs unless they pay their Good to Go bill.