West Seattle, Washington
Earlier this summer, the Washington State Transportation Commission – which sets toll rates, among other things – asked for comment on two potential ways to raise Highway 99 tunnel tolls this fall. The extra increase is needed to bring in enough money to meet goals set by the state Legislature. Today, the WSTC unanimously voted to support the option that would raise all tunnel toll rates 15 percent as of October 1st. And the 3 percent increase already planned for next year is still going forward, too.
But after that, the WSTC says, unless there’s some other unforeseen problem putting a big dent in usage, rates should be able to stay the same until at least fiscal year 2026. Next steps for the proposed 15 percent increase – more public comment, then a public hearing and vote in late August, and the increase would take effect October 1st.
P.S. As for the previous round of public input, most opposed both options (see page 10 and 11 here).
We reported back in May that the state Transportation Commission was starting the process of preparing for increases in tolls and ferry fares. We’ve since reported on the ferry-fare proposal. Now the commission has a survey open on proposed toll increases for facilities including the Highway 99 tunnel.
They’re looking for feedback on two options for raising toll rates starting October 1st, to cover a revenue gap. The two options: 15 percent for all dayparts, or 25 cents for all dayparts. Go here to offer your opinion by July 14th.
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.
The weekly SDOT lookahead (PDF), which often brings first word of key WSDOT closures too, arrived with news of an added Highway 99 tunnel closure described as being for “repairs,” 10 pm next Friday (February 28) to 8 am next Saturday (February 29). We asked WSDOT spokesperson Laura Newborn if the repairs are related to the water leak from the southbound tunnel’s ceiling. She said yes, elaborating;
The purpose of the closure purpose is two-fold.
1. For the tunnel contractor to repair and reseal a small grout-port where water is leaking (the tunnel is under warranty).
2. To complete regularly scheduled tunnel maintenance from Friday, Feb. 14 as crews spent maintenance time creating a temporary repair for the water leak.
We want to emphasize this is considered a minor leak with a straightforward repair plan. The tunnel remains very safe for driving.
The repairs involve re-grouting the area near a grout port and resealing the grout port. During construction, these types of ports were used to add grout to the area between the ground and the outside of the tunnel wall.
Again, that’s next Friday night, NOT tonight. The NB tunnel, meantime, has a regular maintenance closure March 13 (10 pm)-14 (8 am).
Two Highway 99 notes:
NEXT TUNNEL CLOSURE: Looking ahead beyond whatever the weather brings this week, the next Highway 99 tunnel maintenance closure is set for 10 pm next Friday to 8 am next Saturday (January 17-18) – northbound only this time.
ONE YEAR AGO TODAY: January 12, 2019, was the first day without the Alaskan Way Viaduct. As we noted very early that day, the last vehicles were cleared just after midnight.
(2015 tunnel-machine-repair site photo by Long Bach Nguyen)
Six years ago, right about this time of year, the Highway 99 tunnel machine broke down, and tunneling was on hold for more than two years. The state sued the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, seeking $57 million. Today, a jury in Thurston County ruled in favor of the state, saying STP indeed should pay that sum. As noted in this Seattle Times report, the state claimed the stall was STP’s fault, while STP claimed it was the state’s fault. WSDOT sent this statement from state Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar:
“WSDOT is committed to protecting taxpayer money. Knowing the risks associated with tunneling beneath downtown Seattle, we structured our contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners in a way that placed the risks of tunneling on the contractor. We have remained steadfast in our belief that Seattle Tunnel Partners was responsible for the costs of fixing the broken tunneling machine and paying damages for completing the tunnel three years late. We believe the jury got it right and we are grateful for their patience and dedication to ensuring a fair outcome to this case. Since an appeal is possible, we cannot yet say what will become of the damages awarded by the jury.”
If you’re interested in more backstory, here’s a WSDOT infosheet (PDF) also sent today.
One month ago today, the Highway 99 tunnel became a tolled roadway, after 7 months free of charge. Pre-tolling, local transportation authorities projected that up to 50 percent of would-be tunnel users would start avoiding it when tolling began. A few days in, they said the avoidance – officially known as “diversion” – was less than they had expected. Now they’ve crunched more numbers and report that trend contnues. The details are in this post on the WSDOT Blog today, which declares “tunnel usage remains high and exceeds forecasts”:
Prior to the start of tolling on Nov. 9, 2019, about 77,000 vehicles used the tunnel on average weekdays. Since tolling started, roughly 20,000 fewer vehicles are using the tunnel – about 26% less. This drop is less than the 35% to 50% predicted. However, the story is more nuanced. Peak travel volumes in the tunnel remain high. Mid-day volumes are lower, likely due to less crowding on city streets.
The WSDOT report goes into analysis of how travel time has been affected, including buses – among the sample routes mentioned, WSDOT says the 120 stayed the same in the morning, but took “less than 2 minutes longer” in the pm. Also mentioned: “Roughly 80% of vehicles in the tunnel are using either a Good To Go! pass or Pay By Plate.” (If you don’t, you get a bill by mail, sent to wherever your car is registered to.)
So how many people are dodging the Highway 99 tunnel now that tolls are being charged? We’re just out of a downtown briefing where WSDOT and SDOT reps shared the answer, which is basically: Not as much as feared. They cited Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday data, saying that over those three days, tunnel volume averaged no more than 30 percent below pre-toll levels. (There had been projections suggesting up to 50 percent “diversion.”) Alaskan Way, accessible from the pre-tunnel Dearborn exit from NB 99, had somewhat higher usage, but 1st and 4th were “typical.”
Too soon to declare a definitive trend, cautioned WSDOT’s toll-operations director Ed Barry and SDOT’s downtown-mobility director Heather Marx, but that’s what they have so far. About 75% of those going through the tunnel had eiiher a Good To Go pass or account, so the other 25 percent will be getting bills in the mail. (If you’re waiting for the system upgrade that will allow you to use GTG without putting $30 in the account first, that’s not going to be available until next year. We recorded the briefing/Q&A, held in SDOT’s Traffic Management Center, on video, and will add it after we get back to HQ.
ADDED 5:44 PM: Above, video of the entire briefing/Q&A, which lasted just under 15 minutes. Side note: Pre-briefing, we asked Marx about the pre-tunnel bus lane, the length of which was tweaked some weeks back. She said it’s “working exactly as planned” and that its importance will increase even further when buses switch to Alaskan Way, which she said is expected to happen in January.
That’s a WSDOT crew uncovering one of the signs south of the northbound Highway 99 tunnel last night. By 5 am, all signs in both directions will be uncovered, because that’s when tolling begins – though it’ll be a little later on the northbound side, since that’s scheduled for a maintenance closure 10 pm tonight until 8 am tomorrow. If you’re still not entirely sure how tolling will work, here’s a WSDOT video:
And here’s the chart of what you’ll pay and when:
If you don’t have a Good To Go sticker pass, you can still get one, but they’re not free any more. You can also open a Good To Go account without a sticker – that’ll cost you an extra quarter each time you’re tolled if your car is registered to the account. Or if you skip Good To Go altogether, every time you take a tolled trip, you’ll pay $2 extra and get a bill via postal mail.
One week from today, seven months of toll-free Highway 99 tunnel travel will end. The tolls vary by daypart – here’s the chart:
Those are the rates you’ll pay if you have a Good To Go! pass and account. If you have an account but no sticker, it’s a quarter more. If you have neither, you’ll get a bill in the mail (your plate is read at tunnel’s end) and it’ll be $2 more. If you don’t have a GTG sticker yet, WSDOT is still offering them free.
Two Highway 99 notes tonight:
TUNNEL TOLLING IN 2 WEEKS: Saturday, November 9th, is now just two weeks away, and that’s the day WSDOT plans to start tolling the tunnel, nine months after it opened. Toll rates are here – extra charges if you don’t have a Good To Go! sticker pass and account, as explained here. There’s still time to get the sticker free by going here.
VIADUCT REMAINDERS: If you thought the Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition was complete – not so, explains WSDOT here. [corrected link]
If you’re using the Highway 99 tunnel tomorrow, you might notice the tolling signs that currently say FREE will instead display symbols. Just a test, WSDOT spokesperson Laura Newborn says – tolling really won’t start until November 9th, as announced back on Monday. Depending on the time of day, here’s what the signage will show tomorrow (and other testing times) in the Good To Go (GTG) and Pay By Mail (PBM) displays:
Time of Day GTG PBM
5:30 a.m. $!.)) $#.))
6 a.m. to 7 a.m. $!.@% $#.@%
7 a.m. to 9 a.m. $!.%) $#.%)
9 a.m. to 3 p.m. $!.@% $#.@%
3 p.m. to 6 p.m. $@.@% $$.@%
6 p.m. to 11 p.m. $!.@% $#.@%
11 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. $!.)) $#.))
Newborn says 4,000 more people have signed up for free GTG sticker passes since Monday’s announcement – you can do it by going to 99tunnel.com.
11:02 AM: Today the signage for the Highway 99 tunnel says FREE, but not for much longer. At a media briefing near the tunnel’s north end, WSDOT has just announced tolling will begin November 9. Details to come.
11:23 AM: The briefing is wrapping up and there’s been another announcement of sorts: SDOT’s Heather Marx says they are about to announce a plan for addressing the West Seattle bus slowdowns. Plus they’ll have a plan for the Dearborn demolition of the remaining Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition. The reroute details are almost ready to go.
11:46 AM: New since the announcement:
Already on the signage: pic.twitter.com/9wPlJXA9Kl
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) August 26, 2019
A few other notes from the briefing: If you already have a Good To Go! sticker, you’re set. If not, get one – you can do it online, free if you act fast.
Otherwise, if you take the tunnel once tolling begins but don’t have one, you’ll get a bill in the mail, at a higher rate (as is the case now with other WSDOT facilities that use GTG such as the 520 bridge across Lake Washington). With GTG, as set by the state Transportation Commission last year, the tolls will range from $1 to $2.25 depending on time of day. The tolls are meant to raise $200 million of the tunnel’s cost.
Another note from the briefing – a few new SDOT catchphrases detected. For example, Marx (who lives in West Seattle) repeatedly stressed that your “commute decision is a community decision.” Also, she mentioned a new program that’ll involve large employers, to be called Flip Your Trip. Also, a repeated reminder that years of the “Seattle Squeeze” remain.
The WSDOT and SDOT reps acknowledge – as they have all along – that the start of tolling could lead to a significant amount of “diversion” – people avoiding the tunnel – possibly up to 50 percent at the start. Currently they say the tunnel is up to about 80,000 vehicles a day.
Almost seven months after the Highway 99 tunnel opened, it’s still toll-free – but we may finally be about to learn when that will change. WSDOT has invited media to an announcement event at midday tomorrow at which it promises information about a start date. As noted on the state’s infopage, once tolling begins, “Toll rates will range from $1 to $2.25 with a Good To Go! pass depending on time of day.”
Two notes today related to the Highway 99 tunnel:
TOLLS DELAYED: WSDOT confirms what was first reported by citywide media earlier today – that the tunnel tolling, originally expected to start this summer, is now delayed until fall. The state is switching vendors for its tolling system and won’t be ready to go this summer as originally planned.
TRAFFIC ALERT: Last night, we reported that WSDOT said Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition is now at the midway point and moving southward. As part of that, lane closures on surface Alaskan Way just north of the NB 99 pre-tunnel exit might back things up, spokesperson Laura Newborn warns:
At 4 a.m. on Friday, June 14, crews preparing for viaduct demolition will reduce Alaskan Way to one lane in each direction between South King and South Dearborn streets. This lane reduction will last more than a month. Narrowing the roadway is the only way for crews to safely prepare and demolish this section of viaduct. Because this section of Alaskan Way is near the SR 99 northbound off-ramp at South Dearborn, travelers may encounter backups on the northbound off-ramp and, potentially, the northbound mainline entering the tunnel.
We expect the heaviest congestion will occur during peak travel periods, special events and on weekends, when ferry traffic increases and cruise ships are in town. Travelers approaching downtown from the south should plan ahead for longer drive times and consider alternate routes or ways of getting around, including transit and the King County Water Taxi.
Heads up if you use the Highway 99 tunnel late night/early morning: SDOT’s advance list of upcoming closures around the city says the tunnel will be closed in both directions from 10 pm next Friday (June 7th) to 8 am Saturday (June 8th).
The Highway 99 tunnel is expected to remain toll-free at least until late summer – here are the factors playing into the timeline, as presented to the Washington State Transportation Commission two weeks ago:
But WSDOT wants you to start preparing now, so starting today, it’s offering free Good to Go! sticker passes for tunnel users. If you don’t have one when tolling starts, you’ll be charged a higher toll rate, as explained in the announcement:
With a Good To Go! pass registered to an account, toll rates will range from $1 to $2.25, depending on the time of day. If drivers register their vehicle on an account, but don’t have a pass, it will cost 25 cents more per trip. Without a Good To Go! account, it will cost drivers $2 more per trip.
The sticker would normally cost $5. Be sure to order your free sticker via the instructions on this page – and also make note of the option to wait on activation (but NOT on sticker ordering) to avoid having to put money in your account in advance.
The next major piece of the puzzle in the viaduct-to-tunnel transition will be in place by tomorrow morning – the new exit ramp from northbound Highway 99 into the south end of downtown will be open by tomorrow morning, as just announced by WSDOT:
The end of the holiday weekend brings the start of a new way for drivers and bus riders to get to downtown Seattle from northbound State Route 99.
The new off-ramp near the sports stadiums will open for drivers in time for the morning commute Tuesday, Feb, 19.
This new exit ramp leads to a new intersection at South Dearborn Street where drivers can choose to head straight to Alaskan Way and the waterfront, or turn right to access First Avenue and downtown or SODO. This video shows what the choices look like:
In addition to being an important link for travelers, engineers and researchers hope this new ramp will provide a link to something else – earthquake-resistant bridges.
This ramp is the first in the world built with flexible metals and bendable concrete designed to sway with a strong earthquake and return to its original shape. Its innovative design has won regional and national recognition.
After the opening of the new off-ramp, some bus routes will be adjusted. Please see King County Metro’s website for additional information.
(We’ll be following up separately with Metro and SDOT about the timeline for that and for other changes such as the end of the temporary 4th Avenue bus ramp/lane from the West Seattle Bridge. *6:56 PM UPDATE* Metro says yes, buses will shift to the new ramp starting Tuesday.)
WSDOT had warned for months that the exit ramp would take another one to two weeks to finish, after the opening of the Highway 99 tunnel; the recent snow added a few days to that timeline. Without this ramp, everyone using NB 99 in the past two weeks from West Seattle or points south has had to do so without being able to exit until north of the tunnel.
Two Highway 99 updates this afternoon:
REMEMBER THE RAMP? The tunnel’s been open for more than a week now, but the Dearborn/Alaskan Way offramp – to allow people traveling from West Seattle and points south to exit NB Highway 99 before the tunnel – is still under construction. The culprit, as you might expect – the snow. We asked WSDOT’s Laura Newborn today if there’s an update on the offramp’s expected opening: “There’s still weather-dependent work ahead of us. We do believe it will be next week but can’t say yet what day.”
ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT DEMOLITION: This too has been delayed a bit by the snow. WSDOT now says it’ll start later this week, at multiple spots including the Columbia/1st ramp. They’ve also added webcams focused on the Viaduct so you can watch the work.
Today was the first real test of the Highway 99 tunnel in traffic. If you weren’t among those using it – above is the next best thing, Jamie Kinney‘s dashcam video from the northbound morning commute. Below, a “live” look inside the south end of the northbound deck:
One big question remains for West Seattleites: When will that exit ramp to the south end of downtown open, so people headed northbound from here can use 99 without having to go through the tunnel? Dating back to last summer, WSDOT warned it would take up to two weeks beyond the tunnel opening to finish that ramp. Optimistic projections more recently were that it could be as little as one week – but then came the snow. We checked in today with WSDOT’s Highway 99 project spokesperson Laura Newborn, who says, “Weather definitely put the work behind on the NB off ramp Monday and Tuesday. The contractor is working today, but the bad weather could cause challenges for the crew.” And, of course, as the weather experts are warning, it’s likely not over yet. One other thing about NB 99 came up in a comment discussion today: The NB bus lane south of the tunnel. It was cut short a while back so that crews could repair a “dip” and has not been fully restored yet, but Newborn says it will extend to, and onto, the new Dearborn/Alaskan Way exit ramp, and then after the Metro routing “interim” time of up to 1 year, will also extend onto the new Alaskan Way. (The 4th Avenue temporary bus lane on the eastbound West Seattle Bridge, meantime, will be removed once buses stop using that ramp, SDOT has reiterated – again, waiting on that NB 99 exit ramp.)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After a dramatic 18-year prelude, the Highway 99 tunnel’s Monday debut was upstaged, big time.
Two inches of snow overshadowed two miles of tunnel.
But before the new tunnel becomes old hat, we need to finish telling the tale of its Saturday dedication, and the memories the event unearthed.
11:23 PM SUNDAY: It’s official – the Highway 99 tunnel is now open. The video above is by Paul Weatherman, who reports his was the first non-government vehicle to travel the northbound lanes right after they opened around 11 pm (added – full clip here); WSDOT says it’s working to get the southbound lanes open too. No toll until sometime this summer. This sign we photographed during Saturday’s dedication event will verify that for skeptics:
If you’re heading northbound on 99 from the eastbound West Seattle Bridge or from south of here, remember, no downtown exit before the tunnel for another week or so.
12:22 AM MONDAY: And now the southbound direction is open too. With this plus the snow, a unique morning commute is ahead, and we’ll be tracking it all starting at 5 am.