April 26, 2007
  

Electronic Tolling Comes To Washington

Matt Rosenberg

Yesterday was the first day for office sales of electronic toll stickers for use later this year by drivers on the new eastbound, Route 16 Tacoma Narrows Bridge. State transportation officials by mid-day had sold or mailed out to customers 2,654 of the stickers, to be read by overhead transponders which automatically deduct toll costs from drivers' pre-paid accounts. (UPDATE: registrations had grown to 6,131 by mid-day today, but with some short-term DOT server glitches, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports). This DOT animation contrasts the more free-flowing "Good To Go" electronic toll lanes, and the slower toll booth lanes for single-purchase customers. The animation also demonstrates how overhead cameras will capture the license plate numbers of scofflaws, who will be issued fines of $40 plus thrice the unpaid toll, per violation. Passage west on the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge toward Gig Harbor and beyond will remain free of charge.

Next year, DOT is expecting to begin a "HOT Lane" pilot project on a nine-mile stretch of SR 167 between Renton and Tacoma, a crucial north-south alternative for many drivers to congested I-5. The project will convert carpool/HOV lanes to not only free for multiple-occupant vehicles, but also available to solo drivers for a pre-paid electronic toll like that to be used on the eastbound Narrows Bridge. There's an added twist: Toll amounts will vary according to how much usage the HOT lanes are getting when drivers pass under the transponder.

Tolls have of course been applied before on bridges here, but only the old-fashioned way, which if used as a blanket approach to tolling today would add greatly to congestion already making motorists gnash their teeth.

"It's the wave of the future, as far as tolling in this state," said Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Doug MacDonald, the state transportation secretary, has predicted that in a couple of decades, electronic tolling will be pervasive on Puget Sound-area highways. Recent gas-tax increases and proposed regional taxes fail to cover the price of highway megaprojects, so politicians are considering tolls, even at the risk of a public backlash.

...Even though Opening Day for the Narrows Bridge is a few months off, dozens of people lined up Wednesday in Gig Harbor to open their accounts, at a $30 minimum. Some paid $100. "We like to be ahead of things," said Patrick O'Dell of Port Orchard. It's fair to make users pay, he said: "We can't seem to come up with enough money to fix our roads. They've been doing it back East for years." The sales office resembles a small bank branch, with young women in teal polo shirts behind teller windows, a promotional video playing on a wall-mounted screen, and sign-up forms in the lobby. But most transactions will happen online...The goal is to have 50 percent to 60 percent of drivers equipped with a chip when the bridge opens.

If you drive regularly across the Tacoma Narrows you're going to want one of these. The DOT "Good To Go" page, including an online purchase interface, is here.

DOT and Sec. MacDonald deserve hearty congratulations for moving forward on the "Good To Go" Tacoma project and the SR 167 HOT lanes effort. With continued leadership from DOT, legislators and business, tolling can become widespread on Puget Sound highways within one decade, as opposed to several.

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