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Will I-90 tolls shuffle the region's commute - or are we just bluffing?

SEATTLE, March 20, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- 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. But 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 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 volumesthere's no doubt that fewer vehicles cross the Evergreen Point Bridge now compared to pre-toll days.

In fact, the latest PEMCO 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's 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 solution21 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 allthe 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.

To learn more about the PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll and to view a summary of the results, visit www.pemco.com/poll, where the public is invited to participate in an informal version of the poll and see how their own responses compare with those collected by FBK Research of Seattle in November 2013.

About the PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll
PEMCO Insurance commissioned this independent survey that asked Washington residents several questions about driving habits and attitudes toward current Northwest issues. The sample size, 294 respondents in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, yields an accuracy of +/- 5.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. In other words, if this study were conducted 100 times, in 95 instances the data will not vary by more than the error range.

About PEMCO Insurance
PEMCO Insurance, established in 1949, is a Seattle-based provider of auto, home, boat, and umbrella insurance to Northwest residents. PEMCO Insurance is sold to consumers by the method they choosephone, local community agents, or online. PEMCO ranks "Highest in Customer Satisfaction among Auto Insurers in the Northwest Region" according to J.D. Power. For more information, visit www.pemco.com.


Jon Osterberg
PEMCO Insurance
[email protected]

Kristi Clough
Firmani + Associates Inc.
[email protected]


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