Toll increase for Highway 99 tunnel? Might be needed sooner than planned, State Transportation Commission told

When the state Transportation Commission set toll rates for the Highway 99 tunnel, the rates were planned to increase 3 percent every 3 years, starting in July 2022 – subject to annual review. Today, the commission was told tunnel tolls might have to rise sooner, since traffic is down and therefore revenue is down. The commission’s monthly meeting included an update on toll revenues from WSDOT facilities, particularly Highway 520 and the 99 tunnel, which started charging users in late 2019. For the 99 tunnel, revenues are 45 percent below what was expected, pre-pandemic.

That’s particularly problematic because an intradepartmental $10 million loan is due soon. The governor’s proposed transportation budget would allow that to be deferred, the commission was told, but $4 million would still be due in a few years, and the financial picture doesn’t look much rosier in the next few years. Raising tolls and/or cutting operation/maintenance costs are the main options WSDOT has for dealing with it. The latter doesn’t seem terribly likely, as another presentation at today’s meeting also mentioned higher costs systemwide from a variety of operational elements, including “repair/replacement” costs and changes in “back-office” and tolling systems. No specific potential increases were mentioned, but staffers told commissioners that if they wanted to implement a toll increase this July, they would need to get the process going ASAP.

25 Replies to "Toll increase for Highway 99 tunnel? Might be needed sooner than planned, State Transportation Commission told"

  • Chemist January 19, 2021 (6:37 pm)

    Speaking of WSDOT tolling, did they abandon the “Pay As You Go” component that was delayed from like Summer 2019?  I haven’t heard any mentions of that lately.  August 2019 TNT

    A new pay-as-you-go option also will be available for new customers once the new system launches.“Currently when you set up a new Good To Go account, you need to deposit $30, which covers your initial tolls and passes you may need,” said Heather DeRosa, a WDOT public information officer, in May.“Once the new system goes live … won’t be any need to set up an account with that $30 fee.”

    • WSB January 19, 2021 (6:38 pm)

      The WSTC discussion was not so much operational as big-picture – their role is to set toll rates, not how they’re collected.

    • MrsL January 19, 2021 (10:57 pm)

      Our family does the Pay-by-plate option. You register your license plate with Good-to-go and start out with $30 min on your account. You pay the good-to-go toll + $0.25, which is deducted from your acct balance. Since we rarely take the tunnel or any other toll roads, this pay option made the most sense for us.

      • chemist January 20, 2021 (10:23 am)

        I’ve since done the plate registration on a family member’s account that already paid the $30 deposit, but I’ve got the Good To Go! packet (provided free thanks to west seattle blog’s coverage of the promotion) that has a postmark of May 2019 still waiting for the Pay As You Go plan.  At one point SDOT suggested it was pushed back due to the ETAN/vendor change happening but I think that finally wrapped up in late 2020.  Like many West Seattle folks, in early 2020 I suddenly had fewer reasons to drive 99 N into the city and have not paid tolls yet.  I still had hopes for the state launching the ability to create accounts with a lower starting balance (or pay as you go) for folks with very sporadic usage anticipated under my own account.  I haven’t been able to find any official word of that Pay As You Go option being cancelled, but it’s certainly not being mentioned anymore.

        New payment option available this winterWe are transitioning to a new Good To Go! billing system, one that will include several new features for our customers. This includes the option to open a new Good To Go! account without a pre-paid balance, called Pay As You Go. This option will allow tolls to be charged to your credit card after you travel.Recently it became clear that our billing system vendor, ETAN, needs additional time to test the new system. We are dedicated to you having as seamless an experience as possible while we work with ETAN to transition to this new system and upgraded features. So the new Pay As You Go option, a feature ETAN is developing within the new system, will be available sometime after SR 99 tolling starts.While we are disappointed that you won’t have access to the new features just yet, everyone will be able to switch to the new Pay As You Go option when it is available sometime this winter.

  • Dan Keller January 19, 2021 (6:41 pm)

    Raising the toll during the pandemic will not solve this problem.  Drivers will once again find alternate routes in order not to pay, especially if they are still not working.

  • KJ January 19, 2021 (6:56 pm)

    I don’t work downtown and used to use the tunnel most weekends to travel north of the city. But it isn’t the pandemic that has changed my driving habits as much as the bridge being out. It is just easier to get out of WS and travel south.

  • heartless January 19, 2021 (6:57 pm)

    I get the logic, but it’s hilarious that the response to not enough people using a service is to raise the cost of that service.  Elastic, inelastic, yadda yadda, I know all that; it’s still pretty damn funny.

    • TM7302 January 19, 2021 (8:15 pm)

      Yep.  Maybe they’d generate more revenue if they lowered the tolls?  The economist in me says they would but they would never consider such a move.  It’s I want more.  The not so hilarious next answer would be, is this rate hike going to be a one-time deal to make up for lost revenue or will it be the new baseline for which all other rate hikes will be based off of.

    • flimflam January 19, 2021 (8:26 pm)

      yep, when people try to conserve water/energy? used less? pay more!

    • Lisa January 19, 2021 (10:20 pm)

      What’s funnier is that they raise fares when there are too many people using a service (like buses), too! 

    • 1994 January 19, 2021 (10:50 pm)

      Same thing with our electric consumption. When people reduced their electric use the city said they need to raise rates to maintain the services….

  • Joe Z January 19, 2021 (7:57 pm)

    Why are we building a giant road on the waterfront if the tunnel has plenty of excess capacity? 

  • flimflam January 19, 2021 (8:25 pm)

    this is shocking!!!!

  • alki_2008 January 19, 2021 (8:26 pm)

    When stores want more revenue, they don’t raise the price. They make the price lower, so that more people will buy it. Increase quantity, not unit cost.
    There are numerous people I know that would use the tunnel if the toll was less. There is traffic volume on alternate routes that could use the tunnel if the price was lower. Raising the price will likely divert more traffic to those alternate routes and thereby NOT result in more revenue, but that’s just my guess.

    • smallbusinesssense January 20, 2021 (1:32 pm)

      Seriously, business 101. When people aren’t buying, making it more expensive to cover loses makes no sense. And since the tunnel is a service and not a product, its not like they lose profit margin. Try making it cheaper and see what happens first. The lack of business sense in government is astounding, but not surprising, seeing as its not their money to begin with. If traffic is down everywhere, the tunnel becomes less viable as it isn’t a hindrance to use I-5 due to lower traffic volumes. Supply and demand people, its a basic principle. And trying to turn low demand into higher revenue will only mean lower demand. and less revenue. My cat knows that, and she doesn’t even drive.

  • Mj January 19, 2021 (10:14 pm)

    WSDOT should work to enhance their revenue base, aka the users of the West Seattle Bridge.  The sooner the bridge is repaired the more customers they will have to use the tunnel.  Thus WSDOT should do what they can to help expedite the repair of the WSB including financial contribution.

  • Graciano January 20, 2021 (4:57 am)

    Poor WSDOT, maybe they can get the Governor to give them a moratorium on the payment. Kind of like what they have done for renters..

  • KK January 20, 2021 (5:33 am)

    MJ has it right (Jan 19, 10:14 PM).  I live in West Seattle.  Let me use the West Seattle Bridge and I’ll use the Tunnel.

  • John January 20, 2021 (7:08 am)

    Seattle will rise from the virus.

  • Anne January 20, 2021 (10:55 am)

    A certain amount of revenue was expected-  not getting that-so of course  they’re going to raise the tolls-(with bridge not easily accessible-)how else will they get that $$? Same happens with gas taxes-less people driving( pandemic or using transit ) more electric/hybrid cars-less gas being bought-$ not coming in= raise taxes. Think I heard that an 18 cents a gallon increase being talked about in Olympia right now. Pay per mile has also been talked about off & on-no doubt that is next. –

    • BBILL January 20, 2021 (5:03 pm)

      Loosely the cost of operating the toll routes is fixed and thus the marginal cost of providing service for the next vehicle is $0. This is not completely true, but please allow me to move forward with that. Because MC=0, profit is maximized by maximizing total revenues, and total revenues are the product of total quantity served times unit revenue per each. This is complicated a bit by the variable rate by day/hour, but what we need to know is how does increasing the price impact the number of people who choose to use a given toll route. If reducing the price by a small amount results in a very large increase in use (again, I realize that there are boundary values that must be respected, but we’re working under the assumption outlined above), then the revenues would significantly increase, and thus the profit, which are revenues in excess of short-term cost. Similar if increasing the price a small amount would cause a big drop in usage, then revenues and profit could go down with a price increase. Alternate routes are a big issue here, which is a factor into the “elasticity of demand.” For example, SR520 might have been viewed as worth a premium cost when I90 had a lot more traffic.

  • Rick January 20, 2021 (11:19 am)

    Cars are evil. Once they’re eliminated who will fund the safe street/bikeway/children,s playgrounds(roads)/jogging walking paths? Pay per mile will be the one way outta here cost. Then it will be Trump’s fault. They will come after you sooner than you think. Maybe you can go back to blaming GW.

  • John W January 20, 2021 (12:35 pm)

    Use taxes are emerging as the only moral and ethical method to address  our old inequitable system of fuel taxes and our aging out, public subsidized, motor vehicle infrastructure.

    Paying a rate per mile driven and a rate per minute of vehicle storage is the way to reduced congestion, smooth roads and available parking  for those ‘forced’ and those who choose to drive a single occupancy vehicle…work or pleasure.

    • heartless January 20, 2021 (1:56 pm)

      I don’t see a reasonable argument against this.

  • Mj January 20, 2021 (10:13 pm)

    BBILL – thank you for economics 101.  Increasing the cost will divert more traffic to alternative routes that are currently less congested due to Covid.  Increasing revenue may be had by reducing the Toll, 100 *$1 = $100.  40 *$2 = $80.  

    Once again many of the paying customers were using the WSB that is closed.  Getting the WSB open again ASAP would help increase WSDOT’s toll revenue.

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