SR 99 Tunnel tolling: Looks like $1 each way

SEATTLE -- Big Bertha has just gotten started digging the Alaskan Way Tunnel under downtown Seattle, but we are getting a clearer picture of how much it is going to cost drivers to use when it opens in 2016.

The goal is to raise $200 million through tolls to pay for what will be a $3 billion overall project, and that needs to be done without creating a congestion mess in the process.  After all, there will always be people who will avoid a toll at any costs.

There isn’t yet a final recommendation, but here’s the alternative they are close to endorsing:  $1 each way 24 hours a day, meaning overnights and weekends.  There’s one caveat:  That would bump up to $1.25 during the morning and evening commutes.

“Pretty much when you are in the tunnel, you are going to pay something,” said Maud Daudon, co-chair of the SR 99 Advisory Committee on Tolling.  “It’s something that hopefully people will be willing to do for the convenience of throughput and getting through the city quickly.”

There is an art to setting toll rates … keep them high enough to raise the money needed, but not so high that they create diversion mess and clog other streets.  At a buck each way, with an extra 25 cents during peaks, experts admit some people will still avoid the tunnel.

During the afternoon rush hour, modeling shows that 18,000 cars will use the tunnel and 4,000 will take different routes, many on already congested city streets.

“It may be challenging,” acknowledged Daudon.  “People may have to change some of their habits coming into the city.  We’ve seen that in other major regions around the world where people have had to, more people have had to get on buses.”

Some argue that charging anything will create problems.

“There’s no reason to toll,” said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association.  “We’re going to pay huge amounts for something we’ve already paid for in our gas tax and we don’t see the point to it.”

Wasserman fears all the people avoiding the toll will create a huge congestion mess and thereby hurt freight mobility.

“It makes it more expensive to do business here,” Wasserman said.  “We’re building a facility that will be underutilized, this tunnel, that people won’t be utilizing because they’re going to try to save money and avoid the toll.”

State Route 99 project leaders say they are looking at ways to mitigate the effect of diversion, including making some improvements to Interstate 5 and some of the downtown street grid.  As of now, though, there’s no money for any of that.