Tolls on Thursday: Kirkland Espresso Stand Began Life as 520 Toll Booth

There won't be any toll booths when the state starts charging to cross the bridge again on Thursday, but one lives on today as an espresso stand on Finn Hill.

No toll booth plaza will span State Route 520 on the east side of the world’s longest floating bridge to take it across Lake Washington, like one did years ago.

But those of us who might feel a twinge of nostalgia for those early toll years of 1963 to '79 can still wheel up to an original 520 toll booth any time at all, right in Kirkland.

, a solid little espresso stand along Juanita Drive on Finn Hill, owned and operated by the affable Kirkland native Katrina O’Malley, began its life in 1963 as a 520 bridge toll booth.

I myself undoubtedly pulled up to it and forked over 35 cents to cross the 7,497-foot bridge, first while living on the Eastside and working in Seattle, and later as a University of Washington student.

Katrina has a handy sign she can whip out when customers ask her about the stand: “Formerly 520 Toll Booth; Aug. 1963 -- June 1970.”

“I get comments like ‘Wow, your building is so little.’ I say, ‘It used to be a toll booth,’ and they go 'Wow!’” she says.

The stand is quaint now, painted brown and lime green and modified quite a bit, with a wood counter, sign and lights added. But it’s still the same solid steel structure it was when it stood on the 520 toll plaza, which spanned the highway on land at the east end of the bridge--see the attached photo of the toll plaza and booths in 1979.

There must have been five or six booths in each direction--my memory is not exactly clear because they were not my favorite places. Nobody enjoyed paying the toll, especially not a college student of limited resources. More than a few times I paid with whatever nickels and pennies I could scrape together.

I wasn’t the only one who did that.

“I’ve got several customers who remember going through and digging out change to get across, looking under the seat for coins,” Katrina says.

Another pain about the old toll booths was that the requirement that cars stop and pay caused severe gridlock on either side of the plaza during rush hours. Well I remember getting on 520 at the Lake Washington Boulevard on-ramp in Kirkland and immediately hitting the stop-and-go.

Today it’s like that, too, during the commute, but just from sheer traffic volume.

Maybe that will change. Kirkland Patch on Monday posted an informal . Although our toll poll is completely unscientific, the overwhelming majority picked the answer: “Avoid the bridge like the plague. I'll be taking I-90 or driving around the lake from now on.” Of 52 responses to the poll by Tuesday afternoon, 36 picked that answer.

The new tolls will be charged electronically beginning Thursday, through a Good to Go! Pass drivers can purchase. Those without one will still have to pay if they cross. Cameras installed on the bridge will snap a shot of the license plate and a bill will be sent to the vehicle owner’s home. The fee will be variable, topping out at $5 for those without a pass crossing during peak commute times. The revenue will be used to rebuild a new 520 bridge in the coming years.

When the bridge first opened on Aug. 28, 1963, the flat-rate toll was 35 cents. By the time I was driving across the bridge, a coupon book was available that brought the toll down to 17 cents per crossing.

The espresso stand/toll booth is a much more pleasant place today. Katrina, 36, wears an ever-present smile and her organic lattes are top-notch. A few years ago the stand was called Toll Booth Espresso, but the last owner changed it to Caffe Joy.

A Finn Hill native who attended nearby Carl Sandburg Elementary, Katrina was just 4 years old when the tolls were removed in ‘79, after the bridge’s $21 million cost had been covered.

She says she never went through a 520 toll booth. But she wonders. “I’ve been regaled with many tales,” she says, the smile never leaving her face.


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