Monday, 10 October 2011

Seattle's SR 520 floating bridge to have congestion pricing tolls

In December 2011, the existing "Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge—Evergreen Point", in Seattle, will have tolls reinstated. The original bridge was built in 1963, with the toll removed in 1979. It is the longest floating bridge in the world being over 2.2km long and it reaching the end of its useful life. It closes in high winds and is at risk of collapse in an earthquake. It currently carries around 115,000 vehicles a day.   Vehicles using the current bridge will be untolled until the new bridge opens (and tolls will be instituted on that bridge).

Seattle's floating bridge (blue) connects the city with Redmond
A new bridge is to be built with six lanes, two of which are for bus rapid transit and HOVs, maintaining the general traffic capacity of the current bridge. It is currently a major bottleneck and curiously features peak travel in the direction AWAY from Seattle during each peak, because it is the best route to Redmond - the home of Microsoft.  It will cost $4.65 billion.

Tolling is intended to be fully electronic free flow using the DSRC system branded "Good to Go" by the Washington State DOT (using the long standing 915MHz technology).  

Vehicles without a "Good to Go" tag will be expected to pay within 72 hours, or receive a bill through their address identified through automatic number plate recognition.   Customers have a choice between having the prepaid tag, registering as a number plate customer, or simply waiting to get a bill in the mail (the latter costs an additional $1.50 per trip).  Outlets for "Good to Go" include online (a tag is sent in the post), retail outlets and customer service centres.  All options, except setting up an account at a customer service centre (where cash is allowed) require credit or debit cards, or bank account details.  Accounts must be opened with a prepaid balance of $30 with top ups required when balances drop below $8.

However, there has been some trouble with the installation of the toll system on the existing bridge.  The Seattle Times reports that Texas based Electronic Transaction Consultants have faced some difficulties, having promoted early sign ups to "Good to Go" earlier this year, but being then it "ran into problems, both with sluggish customer service and with the technical challenges of counting tolled trips and merging those into a new statewide toll-accounting system". It has had $2 million deducted from its contract worth $23 million for the delays.   The company claims it is unusually complicated because it is integrating with "Good to Go" which is run by the state for two other toll facilities.

Besides the point of tolling an existing old bridge to pay for a new one, what else is interesting is that the tolls wont be a standard flat rate.   The rates will vary as follows (for cars with tag accounts):

 WEEKDAYS
midnight-5am                   Free
5am-6am                           $1.60
6am-7am                           $2.80
7am-9am                           $3.50
9am-10am                         $2.80
10am-2pm                         $2.25
2pm-3pm                           $2.80
3pm-6pm                           $3.50
6pm-7pm                           $2.80
7pm-9pm                           $2.25
9pm-11pm                         $1.60
11pm-midnight                  Free

WEEKENDS

midnight-5am                     Free
5am-8am                             $1.10
8am-11am                           $1.65
11am-6pm                           $2.20
6pm-9pm                             $1.65
9pm-11pm                           $1.10
11pm-midnight                    Free

As you can see, it shows some interesting demand patterns.  I wonder if motorists will understand that degree of complexity at first, but the pricing itself is quite elegant.  Timed to manage any bunching of demand either side of the peaks and during the day.  Weekends are more interesting, with the higher rate matching steady day time demand. 

What this means, of course, is that Seattle is getting congestion charging, albeit on the tolls on this one crossing.  It looks sophisticated from an economic point of view, and the bus rapid transit system will offer an alternative for some.   I will look forward to see how the tolling affects congestion on the existing bridge as a prelude to what may happen when the new one is built.

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