In Seattle, an anti-government protest over bridge tolls?

Route 520 Bridge across Lake Washington

In early January, after tolls as high as $3.50 a throw were reinstated on the Route 520 Bridge across Lake Washington, I opined here it would be an utter revenue disaster for owner Washington State. “A large number of motorists will desert the bridge and stay away as long as they possibly can,” I wrote, drawing upon a somewhat similar situation I described as a Philadelphia journalist more than three decades before becoming New To Seattle. My reasoning: The price was too high and motorists perceived they had options.

Whadayaknow?

KOMO Channel 4 reported last night that traffic is off a whopping 40%, blowing a gaping hole in earlier official predictions that traffic would fall only half as much. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vehicle count drops even more.

Around Seattle, it’s possible to get across the narrow, 22-mile-long lake, which forms Seattle’s eastern edge, on a two-bridge combo that remains free or by going around either the north end or the south end on roads that carry no tolls. My earlier post explained that motorists fixate on the upfront cost of a toll and don’t really take into account the hidden costs of avoiding that toll, like the extra car and gas expense, or the value of their own time. This is called behavioral economics and is always a lot of fun to ponder, since it often entails analyzing the actions of stupid consumers.

But I’m starting to see another factor at work here. Call it Tea Party Light. I think many of the motorists avoiding the Route 520 Bridge are simply delighting in sticking it to the government.

It isn’t every day that you can tell The Man to go pound sand. Try stiffing the income tax collectors in the Other Washington, and you might end up in the slammer. Fail to pay your property taxes here, and you could lose your house. Ignore a jury summons and there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself in front of a judge (but at least you’d probably not be chosen to sit on a trial, since one of the sides or the judge will think you harbor a grudge).

However, there’s nothing they can do if you decide to vote with your feet–or at least the foot on the gas pedal–and leave the state to figure out another way of raising the funds to someday replace the bridge. Frankly, I think a lot of people enjoy complicating the life of government bureaucrats. I also see a resentful reaction to the new toll structure’s social engineering aspect (variable tolling, with peak rates during rush hours down to free overnight). A bit too Orwellian for many.

The overall mindset strikes me as similar to that of people who order small amounts of goods over the Internet from out-of-state vendors to avoid paying the local sales tax. Thanks to shipping fees, it’s hard to come out much ahead. That’s true even in Seattle, whose 9.5% sales tax is the country’s highest among big cities. But it sure feels sweet to beat Big Brother at his own game.

I can cite no scientific evidence for my perception that anti-government beliefs are at work here. However, I certainly can cite recent conversations I’ve had with folks as I go around town refereeing youth soccer matches. “I took the I-90 bridge [the free one],” one soccer parent from Bellevue told me before a match in north Seattle. “It was a nice feeling.” Added another who took a roundabout route that more than ate up all the savings, “It sent a message.”

Now, being a long-time student of supply and demand, I think the state has an easy solution here. Simply lower the toll to something people find acceptable, maybe $2. Get rid of the variable time element. This is almost sure to put a lot more money in the state’s till.

In my experience, principal always trumps principle.

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In Seattle, an anti-government protest over bridge tolls? — 8 Comments

  1. Back where I grew up in Chicago, the tolls have been a facet of life for a long time in the outer suburbs. For about 10 years or more now, they’ve had at-speed tolling like what is on the 520 bridge and it struck me funny how nobody complains about it over there. The simple reason is the tolls provide smooth roads and you know exactly where your money is going, and it’s cheap, like $1.50 for a beautiful, smooth, easy 5 miles of highway where the state patrol doesn’t mind if you go 75 (so long as you aren’t driving like a maniac).

    It’s too bad that WSDOT had to screw the pooch and institute a variable toll. That smacks of sticking it to East-siders for DARING to not live in the city, or at the very least, sticking it to the poor worker bee who has no choice but to come in at 8 or else he’ll be rapped or worse. That’s why it’s so satisfying to stick it to the government here, it’s a protest against the obvious issue with variable tolling.

    Get rid of the variable toll and institute a flat toll 24/7. Make it $1. Boom, I bet you that 90% of those who divert to I-90 will come back.

    • At times there’s more than 5 miles between tolls, I honestly don’t have the energy to figure out the average distance between tolls in Chi-caw-go.

  2. I live in Magnolia, too. How many will pay a $3 toll for the tunnel-to-be along the waterfront when they can simply scoot down Second Avenue and get back on Route 99 to go to the airport?

    • Not me. The tunnel should be free if it’s supposed to get cars off surface streets. It’s common sense. You’re lucky you weren’t here for the monorail debacle. Common sense is definitely in short supply when it comes to transportation issues here in Seattle.

      (& sorry about my auto correct typos in previous comment…. Easy side = east side, ESP = esp. I shouldn’t comment from my phone.)

  3. I agree! The day the toll started I told my husband say goodbye to the 520 bridge cause we’re never going on it again (not that we go to the easy side much anyway because it’s a nightmare to drive anywhere here, ESP when you live in magnolia). I also buy as much stuff as possible online to avoid our high sales tax. You should write about the high parking meter rates ($4 an hour) along the waterfront. I had a membership to the aquarium that I won’t renew because parking is so expensive. If govt would just lower the tolls/parking/sales tax to a reasonable amt (like $2 one way only to cross 520, or $1-2 an hour to park) it seems to me they would make more money because everyone wouldn’t avoid the fees. But what do I know??

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