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Rep. Harmsworth’s mission to shut down I-405 tolls

The I-405 express toll lanes have a maximum toll set at $10. (WSDOT)

Rep. Mark Harmsworth says he doesn’t want to wait until fall of next year to find out if the I-405 express toll lane officially fails to meet its necessary goals when he thinks the proof is already obvious. That’s why he told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz that he introduced a bill to return the highway back to the way it used to be.

“Well, they could just fail. I’d rather get the thing fixed now,” Harmsworth (R-Mill Creek) told Rantz on Thursday. “We’ve got another year or nine months to go here and that’s another nine months of congestion that we could be avoiding if we take them out now. And they put them in pretty quickly so it’s not going to take long just to change the signage and do some striping, because a lot of the stripes are actually temporary.”

Related: Did WSDOT take away a lane on I-405 for the express toll lanes?

The High Occupancy (HOT), or express toll lanes are intended to give drivers the option to use the lane for a more reliable trip, with tolls adjusting based on real-time traffic conditions. This has been expensive for some drivers, however, with commutes reaching up to $20. While the Washington State Department of Transportation has reported increased revenue on the toll lanes, its has also acknowledged that congestion is significantly higher.

The Harmsworth bill

Harmsworth’s bill, the Eastside Corridor Congestion Relief Act, proposes that the two express toll and carpool lanes be returned to general traffic. Specifically, turning the toll lanes into general purpose, which Harmsworth says was promised as part of the 2007 Nickel tax.

“I’m just asking for what we paid for, effectively,” he said.

Harmsworth said he’s reached out to both sides and is hoping for bipartisan support, including from some legislators who campaigned on getting rid of the express toll lanes.

“I’m hoping they stick to their word and sign onto this bill,” he said.

Harmsworth said there are a couple restrictions that have to be met for the toll lanes to stay, most notably that the lanes meet a 45 mph minimum speed limit, otherwise the toll lanes have to be taken out after the trial period, which is next fall.

“They’re not meeting that goal right now, so unless they invest considerable more money in the corridor, they’re not going to hit that goal,” Harmsworth said. “If they go back to the HOV, they’re not subject to that anymore so that’s one of the things that’s certainly bearing on their minds and you’re seeing that in their statistics and their numbers as they’re coming out and showing that they’re not performing well. They’ve already admitted the congestion is now worse in the corridor. So I think as we get closer to September, October, there’s going to be a panic from them as they realize that their experiment really hasn’t worked, while the rest of us have realized it’s not working.”

How changing I-405 back might help

Harmsworth said congestion has improved since Gov. Jay Inslee announced 14 changes he’d like to see on the I-405 corridor, most notably removing tolls during non-peak evening hours and weekends.

Harmsworth said adding general purpose lanes will speed things up since a lot of the HOV carpools that used to exist are now gone.

“The majority of the people using the HOT lanes that can afford to do it are single-occupant vehicles so those cars that are currently using that lane will, first of all, get to use the extra lane for free, but the two-plus HOV, the folks that want to carpool, will be able to use that, and that’s going to reduce the number of cars in the HOV lanes so everybody gets to move faster,” he said. “I think we also may be looking at this from a longer-term perspective and I have some ideas around extra capacity and other congestion relief as well, but certainly you’ll see the majority of the freeway start moving a lot faster once you take out these HOT lanes. And we’ve seen that in the evenings and weekends as we’ve opened up these lanes – the governor did that last year after we introduced legislation – and we’ve started to see traffic move now.”

House Transportation Committee Chairperson Rep. Judy Clibborn has warned Harmsworth that removing toll lanes would mean he won’t have enough money to fund the portion of I-405 that actually goes through his district. Harmsworth said that idea does “not really” concern him. He said that the money needed is “something they can make work” and also likened the issue to buying a house and claiming that you don’t have to repay your mortgage.

“Which is effectively what the state is doing,” he said. “It’s saying, ‘Yeah, we put all the money into this system and now the money that we’re collecting isn’t going to go to repay the original cost to put it in.’ That seems a little ridiculous to me.”

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