Is it Possible to Cheat the 520 Bridge Toll?

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Beginning tomorrow, drivers will have to pay up to $5 to cross the 520 bridge, and the good folks at the Washington Department of Transportation have gone to great lengths to ensure that nobody gets a free ride. But is there still a way to beat the state's cutting-edge toll technology?

As noted yesterday on Daily Weekly, most drivers crossing the 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).

On an average weekday, the bridge caries 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 vast 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. The first 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 allows workers to distinguish the red writing on Washington license plates but does not illuminate the water below.

"Adding more light makes the [salmon] habitat more visible for the predators," Rubstello explains, "It puts them in more dangerous situation because now the predators can find them. It's like going out late and night with spotlight and shining it in the water."

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. Even if the traffic is gridlocked, the cameras are angled so that they can peer through the bumper-to-bumper cluster.

Several people have already 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 if drivers 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 that are placed in the rear window, for example. But be warned: 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. "We do test this system at over 100 miles per hour, so for those with Lamborghinis we can get those too."

As for simply ignoring the toll bills sent via mail, the state charges stiff late fees. The fine is an additional $5 for 30 days of non-payment, and the penalty is upped to $40 after 80 days.

For the truly tightfisted, the best option is probably 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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