Two pieces of news provide a flicker of hope amid the doom and gloom.
Pemco Insurance announced that, if Interstate 90 tolls over Lake Washington become a reality, the latest results from the Pemco Insurance Northwest Poll suggest that about two out of three drivers will change their commuting habits to avoid paying the fee.
According to a release, if polling trends are any indication, recent data comparing pre-toll predictions and post-toll behavior on the neighboring Highway 520 may prove that Northwest drivers are more talk than action.
In its most recent poll, Pemco Insurance asked drivers in the Puget Sound region how their use of the I-90 floating bridge, connecting Bellevue and Seattle via Mercer Island, might change if a toll similar to the one collected on 520 became reality for I-90 drivers.
According to the poll, more than half of drivers polled (58 percent) say they plan to cross I-90 less frequently if a toll is put into place. About one-third (37 percent) say they plan to drive north or south around Lake Washington, specifically.
Put into practice, with an average of 133,000 vehicles crossing I- 90 each day, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), that means more than 77,000 cars could be looking for an alternative route.
"With few optional routes available, it could mean more gridlock on I-405, SR 522 and Rainier Avenue, in particular, if drivers stick to what they say they'll do," said Pemco spokesperson Jon Osterberg.
But are drivers really willing to spend more time, potentially sitting bumper-to-bumper, simply for the sake of saving a few bucks? Pemco noted that it collected similar data before and after tolling went into effect on the 520 bridge and found that drivers were not as apt to change their commutes as they said they were.
"Many drivers are quick to say they'll find a way to avoid paying tolls, but our research shows that when it comes down to it, convenience and reduced travel time may ultimately win out," Osterberg said.
In April 2010, Pemco asked drivers in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties if the then-impending 520 toll would change their driving behavior. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) reported they would use the 520 bridge less often. However, a 2012 Pemco poll, conducted about one year into tolling, revealed that nearly half of respondents (46 percent) reported that they use 520 just as often as they did before the toll.
Of course, anyone who regularly drives 520 can tell the difference between pre- and post-toll traffic volumes-there's no doubt that fewer vehicles cross the Evergreen Point Bridge now compared to pre-toll days.
In fact, Pemco said that its latest poll shows that of the drivers who said they used 520 before it was tolled, 43 percent said they switched to using I-90 at least a couple times per week to avoid paying. About one-third (35 percent) said they now use I-90 five days per week.
Since 520 tolling went into effect, WSDOT estimates that travel times between Issaquah and Seattle average four minutes longer during peak times, and an additional 15,000 cars per day cross the I- 90 bridge.
With few alternative route options, WSDOT predicts that tolling with a similar fee structure will more evenly distribute commuters between the two bridges, essentially sending some drivers back to 520.
But not all drivers will seek an alternate route. Pemco reported that its poll shows that of the two-thirds who plan to make commuting changes, about one-third of those drivers will switch to a mass transit solution-21 percent say they'll take the bus more often and 17 percent say they'll carpool.
About one-quarter (28 percent) say they'll make no change at all- the toll simply won't deter them from using I-90 when that day comes.
WSDOT is currently conducting an environmental impact study and is scheduled to bring its findings to the legislature in 2015.
Pemco Insurance is a Seattle-based provider of auto, home, boat, and umbrella insurance to Northwest residents.
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