Beat the (520) Bridge

The new tolls will be tough, but not impossible, to circumvent.

Most drivers crossing the newly tolled 520 bridge will pay up to $3.50 at peak hours from a windshield-mounted "Good to Go" pass, which basically works like a debit card. Those without passes will have their license plates photographed and eventually receive a bill for the toll, plus a $1.50 surcharge (hence the $5 maximum).

But is there a way to beat the state's cutting-edge toll technology?

On an average weekday, the bridge carries 30,000 cars per lane. That's a whole lot of license plates to track, and the state had to delay the start of tolling for more than a year to figure out how to do it. The "Good to Go" scanners will account for the majority of vehicles, while cameras mounted above the east end of the bridge will capture two photos of each car—one of the front license plate and one of the back.

The cameras are similar to those used to nab red-light runners at Seattle intersections, but with a few key differences. One is that at night, a "near-infrared" flash system will be used for the benefit of Lake Washington's salmon. According to Patty Rubstello, the DOT's director of toll-system development and engineering, the lights are purple, a color that will allow workers to distinguish the red writing on Washington license plates but not illuminate the water below, which could put salmon in harm's way by making them more identifiable to predators. The system's software also uses "optical character recognition" to automatically read Washington plates. Out-of-state plates will be read manually, via the photographs.

Several people already have dreamed up schemes to obscure their license plates from the red-light cameras, such as using a clear plastic coating to reflect the light from the flash. But supposedly that won't work with the 520 toll. "If the system itself can't accurately determine what the license plate numbers are, it goes to manual review," Rubstello says. "You've got human eyes looking at it, and they can see through tactics people use to cover it up. Even if there's mud covering it, they can usually determine what license plate numbers are there."

The only loophole, it seems, is for drivers to stick their license plates somewhere other than their front and back bumpers. Rubstello says strict privacy laws prohibit the state from photographing motorists through their windows, so they can't capture license plates placed in a rear window, for example. But Rubstello notes that state troopers will be on the lookout for people with improperly mounted plates.

She also cautions that speeding through the tolling scanners won't do any good either. "They can actually take good pictures even at really high speeds," she says.

For the truly tightfisted, the best option probably will be to fight technology with technology. A company called SeaBalt Solutions has released a "Toll Avoider" app, which maps alternate routes that avoid 520 altogether.

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