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405 toll lanes cheating drivers, traffic reporter Chris Sullivan explains

Tolls on 405. (Associated Press/Elaine Thompson)

KIRO traffic reporter Chris Sullivan does not just investigate traffic and transportation when he’s on the clock. Sullivan also watches for discrepancies when he’s on the road — particularly when he takes the I-405 toll lanes.

Sullivan has been using the 405 toll lanes since their inception in 2015. While he normally drives them at the same hour, with a pretty similar traffic flow from day-to-day, he noticed that his bill has gone up from 75 cents to as much as $4.25.

When Sullivan talked to the WSDOT Good to Go! office in Bellevue, the agency said that it had indeed changed its tolling system to one that predicts traffic congestion ahead of time — whether or not this congestion actually ends up occurring.

“They said, ‘Yeah, we have tweaked the algorithm recently … now it’s more of an anticipatory congestion pricing,'” Sullivan said.

RELATED: Why 405 tolls are illegal 

They’ve got 3.5 years of daily data they’re relying on, Sullivan pointed out.

“Instead of, ‘OK, we’re starting to see a lot more people in the toll lane, we’ll jack the price up,’ it’s, ‘Well this is about the time when we see the congestion showing up, so we’re going to jack the price up in advance of that,'” Sullivan said. “Even though the conditions may not warrant it.”

The traffic reporter said that he has heard from plenty of KIRO listeners who have also noticed a toll spike, even when traffic conditions don’t warrant it.

Dori wondered if the Fridays before a three-day weekend, when may people take an extra day off work, could be one of these examples. Sullivan agreed that this certainly could be a possibility.

Other observations of 405 toll lanes

The northbound I-405 toll lanes have three zones between Bellevue and I-5, depending on where drivers exit — Totem Lake, Highway 522, and the I-5 entrance. This means that drivers who get off in between these specific exits are still charged for the next toll zone exit.

“You get off at Canyon Park, and you are charged for three-and-a-half miles of driving to I-5 that you didn’t do,” Sullivan said.

Southbound drivers have it even worse, he said. Drivers who exit at Canyon Park are charged for going all the way to Totem Lake, six miles further south.

“Federal guidelines on toll signs say you can only have three toll destinations on a sign — it’s a federal guideline,” Sullivan said. “So, they chose three zones.”

He compared it to King County Metro buses, where “the price is the price, whether you’re going one stop or 13 miles.”

Dori said that this is proof of the prediction he has made for 18 years, that the state has a goal of eventually tolling every road in the region.

“This will be one of the fights of my career, that and the income tax that they want to put in in Olympia,” Dori said. “If we let either of these things happen, families are going to be financially devastated.”

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