WSDOT currently projects about 35 percent of drivers currently using the 99 Tunnel will continue to do so once tolling starts on Nov. 9. More drivers are expected to return to the tunnel in the following weeks and months.
WSDOT currently projects about 35 percent of drivers currently using the 99 Tunnel will continue to do so once tolling starts on Nov. 9. More drivers are expected to return to the tunnel in the following weeks and months.

Tolling for the State Route 99 Tunnel will begin on Nov. 9, which is expected to push a number of drivers to adopt alternate routes to avoid it — at least for the first several weeks.

“It’s going to take some time for everyone to figure out what they’re going to do,” said Heather Marx, SDOT's director of Downtown Mobility.

Transportation and transit agencies called an Oct. 24 news conference to set expectations for travel impacts once tolling starts and to encourage drivers to be prepared for heavier traffic volumes around the SR 99 Tunnel.

Forty percent of drivers initially skirted tolling when it started across the State Route 520 bridge, but gradually returned over the following weeks and months, said Jennifer Charlebois, WSDOT Systems and Engineering director. Some projections are that about 35 percent of drivers currently using the 99 Tunnel will continue to do so once tolling starts. Overhead scanners at the tunnel entrances have detected that many drivers have Good To Go! passes placed on their vehicles, and WSDOT wants more people to have them in place before Nov. 9. It saves drivers $2 in tolling attributed to processing and sending them a bill.

WSDOT continues to offer free Good To Go! passes through 99tunnel.com, and has so far distributed 50,000 passes, with 10,000 still available as of Oct. 24.

“If they don’t have a pass, now is definitely the time to get them,” Charlebois said.

Drivers will still need to activate the passes online and add funds. A pay-as-you-go option is expected to be available in early 2020, Charlebois said.

The 99 Tunnel will continue to be the fastest way to get through downtown, Marx said, but SDOT anticipates many drivers will take various routes to avoid tolling. There are 400,000 people coming into downtown each day, she said, and they should be aware that their transportation choices have a huge impact on travel times.

SDOT expects travel to slow down around the tunnel and alternate routes to SR-99, as well as on First Avenue and Alaskan Way along the waterfront, which will experience a ramp up of reconstruction work next year. Marx said the contractor is required to keep two lanes open on Alaskan Way in both directions for the duration of the project.

“This is the third chapter of the [Seattle] Squeeze, but it’s not just tolling and it’s not just transit,” Marx said.

SDOT closed the Fairview Avenue bridge for replacement in September, with an anticipated 18-month construction timeline.

There will be a second weekend closure of light rail stations starting 11 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25, to construct a temporary center platform at Pioneer Square Station. This is in preparation for a 10-week period of major service disruptions starting in January as Sound Transit connects its downtown rail system to the new East Link Blue Line serving Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond.

Light rail service this weekend will be between Angle Lake and SODO, and Capitol Hill and the University of Washington, with shuttle bus services offered at all closed stations.

“Because buses are smaller than light rail cars, it could be crowded,” said Sound Transit spokesperson David Jackson.

Sound Transit is encouraging transit riders to add an extra 30-60 minutes to their destinations.

Marx said SDOT will address high traffic volumes with “more strenuous responses” should the department see more than a 30-percent diversion from the 99 Tunnel.

There are nine intersections that are expected to have the worst congestion during the period where people are avoiding the tunnel, and Seattle Police officers will be deployed to provide traffic control when needed. Marx said the budget for that is at $100,000.

In anticipation of this phase of the Seattle Squeeze, King County Metro added 1,000 weekly bus trips in September, said Bill Bryant, Metro’s managing director of Service Planning. About half of workers downtown currently take transit, he said, and Metro wants to see that number increase, which means ensuring new riders have a good first impression.

“We want new customers,” Bryant said. “We want to keep existing customers, so how do we do that with these existing conditions?”

More routes are being added along Third Avenue, and with payment options at the front and back of the bus.

Marx said the city also has the discretion to revoke construction permits with 30-days notice should a project be deemed as impacting traffic too greatly, but so far has not needed to do so.