By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
When the groundhog failed to see its shadow this past February, people were eager to usher in spring early. But as trees and flower begin to bloom, another fresh start will be underway. All-electronic tolling for the SR 520 bridge, which connects Bellevue and Seattle, will start soon.
On Jan. 5, the Washington State Transportation Commission approved official toll rates for the SR 520 bridge, which will help cover revenue needed for operation and maintenance, as well as debt repayment related to bridge repairs. Tolls are expected to pay for at least $1 billion of the $4.6 billion project that is planned to improve SR 520 from Seattle to Redmond.
The proposed toll is $3.50 during peak hours (from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and again from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.), both ways and is expected to rise by 10 cents each year between 2012 and 2016.
The bridge will not be fitted with toll booths. Instead, tolls will be collected with the Good-to-Go! system that is much like a debit account. Tolls can be paid by mail, online, or by setting up an account without getting a Good-to-Go! pass.
While people scramble around to find alternative routes to use or bemoan the congestion that will befall I-90, which won’t be tolled, the Eastside may find the SR 520 toll to be an advantage. It could lead to development for the area.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently revealed that Bellevue’s Asian population has grown to 27.6 percent in the last decade, an increase from 17.4 percent in 2000, while Seattle’s Asian population registered at only 13.8 percent since the last Census. With the upcoming SR 520 toll on the heels of these figures, will it bring prosperity and growth to the Eastside?
Population growth on the other side of Lake Washington
The Asian population in Bellevue has increased within the last few years. People are moving to the Eastside to settle down with families or take high-paying opportunities with tech companies, such as Microsoft, said Bellevue Deputy Mayor Conrad Lee.
“[Asian] businesses are attracted to the Eastside because that’s where people with or [who are] looking for high-paying positions are — businesses want to go where that population is,” said Lee.
“With a hard number like Asians making up 27 percent of Bellevue, it’s a fact that even business owners can’t ignore. And if Eastside consumers have these services and businesses available to them, why should they go to Seattle?”
For David Liu, a sound engineer for Microsoft Game Studios, the Eastside already offers him plenty of reasons to stay on the other side of the SR 520 bridge. Liu initially chose to live on the Eastside because of its proximity to his office in Redmond.
However, Liu does use the SR 520 bridge a few times a week. He believes that the toll’s peak pricing will determine when and where he hangs out with friends, “I’d be less inclined to drive across [to Seattle at peak times] because I-90 would be crammed full of commuters, or I’d have to pay a lot of money just to cross the 520,” he said.
Originally from California, Liu is an example of the many people who move to the Eastside for work and remain there because of the ease of navigating the area compared to a more urban city.
“Familiarity [of the Eastside] had something to do with my decision to remain in Kirkland,” said Liu. “Since I started living in the Northwest, Seattle, at the time, felt daunting because it was a brand new city [to me]. I felt it would take a long time to understand and ease my way into it. In the end, I settled with the practical route and didn’t give much thought into living in the big city.”
As a training execution manager with Microsoft, Andrew Lee (unrelated to Conrad Lee) uses the bridge on weekdays to drive from his home in Seattle to the company’s Redmond campus.
Andrew Lee said that the toll would not make a difference in getting to work as he’s already purchased a Good to Go! pass, which allows tolls to be collected from drivers through mounted electronic passes in their cars or by pre-registering their license plates for photo identification.
With business and many friends already on the Eastside, Andrew Lee also said that the toll will not have an impact in determining his social life.
“Since most activities [with friends] happen later in the evening and tolling will be less per trip by then, I would most likely stay on the Eastside later to hang out with people before going home [to Seattle],” said Andrew Lee.
Andrew Lee believes that the toll may even encourage people to explore new dining and entertainment options nearby instead of heading into Seattle.
“There are a lot of Asians already on the Eastside, and perhaps the [toll] might help some reconsider a trip to Seattle and spend more time on the Eastside.
What will the toll bring to the Eastside in terms of social services?
Although social service organizations like Youth Eastside Services and Hopelink currently serve many clients on the Eastside, Conrad Lee believes they don’t offer enough to specifically cater to Asians in particular.
Conrad Lee believes that, like businesses making the move to the Eastside to reach new Asian customers, social services will gravitate toward Bellevue and its surrounding areas in order to serve their clients.
“It’s not that the Eastside doesn’t provide social services already — they do,” said Lee. “But while Seattle has organizations like Asian Counseling and Referral Service and International Community Health Services for Asians, Bellevue doesn’t have anything like that at all. … And if you ask [Seattle-based social services] how many people frequent their clinics in Seattle, you might find a significant number of people come from the Eastside.”
Conrad Lee predicts that with the growth of Bellevue and the Eastside, social services typically based in Seattle will begin providing more significant services specific to the Asian population, such as culturally aware mental health services.
“The Eastside needs to pick up the slack and help clients over here. … It is the responsibility of the government to provide these essential services and make them accessible to the public,” said Conrad Lee.
The 520 toll might also move people to use mass transportation more, benefiting the environment on the Eastside and in Seattle.
Though he worries about the traffic buildup as a result of the SR 520 toll, Liu sees how it might also encourage other commuters to consider other ways to get around.
“From a commuter’s standpoint, I could see how [the toll] would be a drag in incurring lots of unwelcome fees,” said Liu. “But on the flip side, people will seriously start to consider taking the bus as an alternative form of commuting, meaning less congestion and fuel consumption.”
The toll was originally slated to start mid-April. However, the date has been pushed to either May or June. ♦