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Fork Dork: Eastside Business, Residents Ponder for Whom the Toll Tolls

With tolls starting on state Route 520 this month, many area businesses and residents prepare for the upcoming changes.

Before Gov. Albert D. Rosellini died in October, he clutched my hand, gave me a firm handshake like he had so many would-be voters along the campaign trail (“A handshake is a vote,” he liked to say), and told me, “Don’t let them take away my bridge,” raising his firm and distinctive jaw to smile.

The governor, a personal friend, can rest in peace. His bridge, the Gov. Albert D. Rosellini State Route 520 Bridge stretching across Lake Washington, is not going away. It will undergo a facelift, funded by tolls of up to $3.50 each way, that commuters who cross the bridge .

As the tolling begins, area residents, restaurants and retailers weighed in on the impact it may have on their lives. Some fear it will compromise businesses. Others expect little or no change. Yet others say it won’t alter their shopping choices but perhaps it will change their commute; they may choose to take the toll-free Interstate 90 bridge, drive around the north end through Lake City Way, or drive northbound on Interstate 405 and connect to Interstate 5 south.

According to a study by the Washington State Department of Transportation, up to 82 percent of commuters will continue using SR 520 once tolling begins compared to 2010 data, the latest data available. The study estimates up to 76 percent won’t change their commute, while another 6 percent will continue driving across SR 520 but at a different time.

According to the same study, only about 6 percent of drivers will alter their commute to I-90, 2 percent will take I-405 and another 1 percent will take SR 522. The study estimates 5 percent of commuters will alter destinations (likely staying on their side of Lake Washington), while 3 percent will use public transit and another 1 percent will carpool or vanpool.  

Mollie Ruiz-Hopper lives and works on the Eastside but spends much of her leisure time in Seattle, up to four days a week, shopping at boutiques that are only in Seattle, visiting her sister who is a student at Seattle University and attending social functions. She says she may not take SR 520 into Seattle as regularly as she does now after tolling begins.

“I’ll probably take I-90 or not go to Seattle quite as much,” Ruiz-Hopper said. “I don’t think the tolls will be the be-all-end-all. I’ll probably pay more attention and take I-90 if I could save money.”

Jeff Otis, a Kirkland resident and investment adviser at Bellevue-based , said he will likely spend more time on the Eastside after tolling starts.

Otis is an avid fan of University of Washington Huskies football, which will be played at CenturyLink Field at the end of I-90 next season instead of at Husky Stadium (by the SR 520 exit), which is being remodeled.

“The only reasons that I go to Seattle are Husky sporting events and friends’ birthday parties. I normally stay on the Eastside. It won’t have a real impact on me. It would be different if I was a professional working in downtown Seattle.

“I think $200 a month (in tolls) is a significant amount of money in this economy.  At $3.50 each way, every day, it would add up pretty quickly. I think Bellevue residents will stay in Bellevue and Seattle people will stay in Seattle.”

Some business owners echo the thoughts of consumers like Ruiz-Hopper and Otis.

“It should have no effect on our business,” said Tom Cottrell, director of wine at Bellevue’s . “I get almost no Seattle customers. Most of our customers are from the Eastside.”

Some dining and hospitality advocates think Seattle will suffer a net loss of consumers over the Eastside.

“As it is now, Bellevueites and Eastsiders are more likely to go to Seattle. Seattleites are not as likely to come to Bellevue for entertainment or dining,” said Sharon Linton, marketing and communications manager for Visit Bellevue, the official destination marketing organization for the city of Bellevue. “After tolling starts, some of the Eastside residents will likely stay on the Eastside for entertainment. There’s so much going on east of Lake Washington, whether it’s going to the mountains or the wineries or theater and music at .”

Christina Henning, marketing manager, said up to 80 percent of shoppers at the Redmond open-air mall live on the Eastside. Most of the balance of the shoppers work in the Redmond area.

“Most of our shoppers are living on the Eastside so I don’t think it’s going to have an impact on us,” said Henning of the shoppers at the 600,000-square-foot mall with 110 stores. “Most of our shoppers who come from the Westside work here so they are already making the trip.”

Redmond Town Center’s neighbors at the Redmond Chamber of Commerce are concerned about the potential traffic congestion.

“We definitely think people will come to Redmond even if they have to pay tolls,” said Danielle Lynch, interim CEO of the Redmond Chamber of Commerce. “We think people are going to be going around I-90. We are not concerned that people won’t be coming to Redmond. The biggest concern is going to be how it affects traffic.”

Some Mercer Islanders are hoping that some of the commuters who are diverting to I-90 stop on the island in the middle of Lake Washington to shop.

“Any town would like to have people come from out of town and spend their money here,” said Terry Moreman, executive director of the . We are not a destination place but we are very convenient to a lot of people. We have people who come from Mt. Baker and Leschi (in Seattle). It’s just as easy to get on the bridge than it is to drive around Seattle.

“We happen to have a very user-friendly downtown by design. It is walkable. There are more benches. When we did our growth management plan we wanted to make it a place to make it easy for people to walk around.”

Like Henning at the Redmond Chamber of Commerce, Moreman is concerned with potential traffic congestion.

“The added traffic might make some difference for people who live and work here but there’s nothing we can do about it,” Moreman said.

Some business owners in Woodinville are concerned that tolling will be a deterrent for tourists who have traditionally supported the growing wine industry in the city.

“Some Woodinville business owners are concerned that the tolling will reduce the traffic to Woodinville from the other side of the lake,” said David Witt, executive director of the . “The tourists have options if there are barriers on the way that affects their decision. No one has any scientific studies. We’ll just have to wait to see what happens.”

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