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Why drivers are paying tolls for undriven miles

The I-405 toll lanes in Kirkland. (WSDOT)

More than three and a half years into the tolling on I-405, and drivers still have questions.

Several listeners have brought this up to me recently: It’s a question of how the toll zones are set, and if anything can be done to change them.

When you leave Bellevue, the toll signs list three destinations and three prices. When you exit at that location, you pay the price for how far you have driven in the toll lanes. The exits are Totem Lake, Highway 522, and Lynnwood at I-5.

The drivers that reached out to me wonder why there isn’t a toll exit and price for getting off at Canyon Park, because they have to pay the amount for driving all the way to I-5, even though they don’t extend that far.

Chris Foster, at the state tolling division, explained there are several parts behind the reasoning. First, the Federal Highway Administration has specific guidelines about toll signs.

“The Manual of Traffic Control Devices, a manual from the FHWA, limits us to displaying a maximum of three destinations on a toll rate sign,” Foster said.

It’s a guideline meant to limit distraction and confusion.

“If we had six different destinations on the sign, it would be really hard to read as you’re driving by,” Foster said.

What about changing the destinations as you pass certain points, maybe adding Canyon Park once you’re passed Totem Lake? Foster says the state thinks that could also be confusing, and its data suggests that three zones works well.

“Three toll zones was the right balance, based on the guidelines we had and the focus group testing, that trip ending at I-5 seemed to make the most sense,” Foster said.

Despite drivers having to pay for nearly three and a half miles they didn’t drive in the toll lanes, the state says it will stick with its program.

The distances are even more severe coming southbound. The first toll zone goes from south of I-5 to Totem Lake, about eight miles. If you get off at Canyon Park, you’re paying for six miles you aren’t driving. If you get off at 522, you’re paying for three miles you aren’t driving.


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