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I-405 toll lanes are likely here to stay

The HOT lanes from 37th Street NW in Auburn to Eighth Street East in Pacific. (WSDOT)

Upset I-405 drivers had their chance to unload on the Legislature, speaking in favor a bill to kill the express toll lanes.

SB 5707 would eliminate the toll lanes, leaving a new general purpose lane and a HOV lane on I-405.

It should come as no surprise that many people are opposed to the toll lanes. Drivers say they are too expensive and argue they don’t improve travel times. Some also claim that people avoiding I-405 are diverting into their neighborhoods, though the state continues to claim there is no diversion.

Senator Dino Rossi sponsored this bill.

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“You’re taking the most precious commodity people have, their time, and they’re taking time from one person and selling it to another,” he said.

State tolling director Patty Rubstello told lawmakers that the tolling system is working and saving people time.

“During the peak commute periods, those drivers are saving up to five minutes over travel times in the previous HOV lanes,” she said.

Rubstello told the Senate Transportation Committee that there is no data that drivers are diverting from I-405 in any significant numbers. As for the feelings about the toll lanes, Rubstello admitted the tolling division has only surveyed people paying to use the lane but not drivers who choose not to.

Susan Gardner doesn’t buy Rubstello’s numbers. She said she is seeing the diverting traffic every day.

“I live in a neighborhood off Juanita Drive that is held hostage to the traffic created by diversion,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody else says. It exists.”

Janet Nelson wrapped up the session, making a point felt by many driving the I-405 corridor.

“We the citizens are being fed wonder stories of success,” she said. “Seeing is believing. The tolls are not helping congestion.”

In a drop-the-mic-like finish, “take the tolls off,” Nelson said.

But the tolls are not going anywhere, at least until September — if ever. That is the deadline for the project to meet two benchmarks, or it can be eliminated by the Legislature. The toll system must make enough money to cover expenses, which it is more than accomplishing, and the toll lanes must maintain a 45 mph average 90 percent of the time. The lanes are failing on that benchmark, primarily because of the northbound chokepoint in Bothell where the freeway goes from five lanes to three.

Senator Curtis King, who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, said he will give the lanes those two years before making a decision on how to proceed.

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Shoulder driving between Canyon Park and Lynnwood during the afternoon commute will get up and running before that September deadline. WSDOT is hoping that will push the 45 mph threshold back over 90 percent.

The real solution isn’t really even on the radar yet. That is the complete redesign and rebuilding of the SR 522/I-405 interchange in Bothell and the addition of another lane on I-405 all the way to Lynnwood. Those projects are in the pipeline, but likely a decade away. They are also unfunded, with a price tag well north of $700 million.

The elimination of the tolls in September is an unlikely scenario. WSDOT has hitched its long-term transportation plans to tolling and congestion pricing. Construction is now underway in Renton to add direct-access fly-over ramps between the HOT lanes on SR 167 to future express toll lanes on I-405. The state plans to add another lane to I-405 between Bellevue and Tukwila. That will create a two-lane toll system between Tukwila and Bothell.

And for all the anger from many drivers over the congestion caused by the toll lanes, there are plenty of people who are willing and continue to spend up to $10 each way to drive in them.

Tell Chris about a Chokepoint or ask a traffic question @kirortraffic via Twitter.

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