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January 6, 2011 at 10:27 AM

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Still driving toward a $3.50 toll on the 520 bridge

Posted by Mike Lindblom

Undaunted by Tim Eyman, the state Transportation Commission voted 5-0 to approve variable toll rates of up to $3.50 on the old Highway 520 bridge.

The state Department of Transportation expects to start charging drivers in April, to help raise money for a new, six-lane crossing.

Also, the so-called "early tolling" is to be an experiment in reducing congestion, partly funded by the federal government.

The top rate of $3.50 each direction would apply from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Rates at less busy times would range from zero to $2.80. There will be no toll booths -- money will be collected electronically through DOT's "Good to Go" windshield transponders. Drivers without them would have their license plates photographed, and receive a bill in the mail.

The unelected commissioners acknowledged Wednesday that final toll approval "is subject to legislative action," said Executive Director Reema Griffith. Eyman's winning Initiative 1053 requires fee and tax increases to be enacted by lawmakers, and Attorney General Rob McKenna's staff said Dec. 20 that I-1053 does apply to the Transportation Commission.

Therefore, either the Legislature will vote for the toll rates, or "re-delegate" that power back to the Transportation Commission, said Griffith.

Eyman testified that toll-setting must be done by elected legislators because they are accountable directly to the people.

"It's not a slam dunk this is going to pass the legislative session at all," Eyman said Thursday. He thinks lawmakers underestimate commuters' opposition to paying to cross an old bridge, but Eyman doesn't have a counterproposal.

Also, he said the Legislature is less likely to embrace taxes than in 2009, when a bill to allow early tolling passed 52-43. (At that time, there was no firm proposal, but studies indicated a possible $3.25 peak rate.)

Even with these tolls on the current bridge (and the future one), the state is still $2 billion short of the full $4.6 billion cost, but is going ahead with construction of the floating pontoons

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.