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I-405 toll lanes not making the grade after 2 years

(File, WSDOT)

The Washington State Department of Transportation has released the full two year report on the I-405 Express Toll Lanes and they did not meet a critical benchmark set by the Legislature to keep them in operation.

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The tolls lanes are making plenty of money to cover operations, but they are not providing a 45-mile-per-hour trip 90 percent of the time in peak hours.

The lanes generated $44.5 million and operating costs were only $16 million.  That’s nearly $29 million that the state can put back into I-405 improvements. More than $11 million has already been spent to create the northbound shoulder driving north of Canyon Park.  As for the speed threshold, you can blame one section for destroying the average.

“The section that is bringing down the overall average is the southbound single toll lane section that is just so popular in the morning,” said WSDOT tolling director Ed Barry.

The southbound section is only getting to 45 miles per hour 63 percent of the time. The other sections of I-405 are making it at well over 90 percent of the time.

Despite not reaching both benchmarks, Barry said it’s clear the toll lanes are working.

“I think it’s a success,” he said. “Particularly when you look at how the HOV lane was performing out there prior to the project opening, it is a vast improvement.”

Prior to the tolls lanes going in, the HOV lanes were only making 45 miles per hour on average 56 percent of the time.

So now comes the question of whether these toll lanes should go away because they are not meeting both benchmarks. I am not a lawyer, but the law seems quite clear that the lanes must meet both benchmarks. WSDOT and others are making the case that the law is ambiguous and it doesn’t require that both benchmarks be met. It’s up to the Legislature, and likely a court room, to figure that out.

The independent review of the I-405 toll lanes requested by the Legislature was also released Tuesday and researchers at the University of Minnesota had some interesting recommendations. They believe that the maximum $10 toll rate needs to be increased to improve corridor performance. Also, the computer algorithm must be more responsive to real-time traffic and bump up prices faster. They believe allowing more in and out access to the lanes will help too.  Barry likes the recommendations and believes they should be investigated, including one that would add the 9-10am hour to the peak commute.

“The peak hour does seem to be growing,” Barry said.  “We would definitely be open to thinking about that and considering that. We’d also want to be mindful to make sure that we’re making the right decision and we’re getting all the benefits without creating any negative consequences.”

Increasing the maximum toll would be up to the Legislature and the Washington State Transportation Commission.  Expect a big fight over these toll lanes in the next legislative session.

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