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Jason Rantz

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Rantz: WSDOT alters algorithm to worsen traffic, collect much higher tolls

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

Though the express toll lanes between Lynnwood and Bellevue didn’t meet some of the standards necessary to keep the system going, it’s raking in millions more than anticipated. So, the Washington State Department of Transportation, with some corruption from the Attorney General’s office, kept it in place.

But apparently they are getting greedier.

So greedy, in fact, WSDOT recently changed the ETL’s algorithm to make traffic worse, then charge you even more than usual for relief. And as far as I can tell, they offered no meaningful public messaging to alert drivers of the change.

“Yes, we have adjusted the algorithm to help toll rates adapt to traffic conditions in a more proactive manner,” Christopher Foster, WSDOT Toll Division, admitted to KIRO Radio’s Chris Sullivan. “As you know, we have heavy demand from drivers during the morning commute, and limited capacity in the single lane section. With this latest adjustment, our system is able to anticipate the demand and adjust rates accordingly. This helps prevent congestion from building up so suddenly.”

Anticipate the demand? This anticipation rate has increased early morning tolls fairly significantly, when traffic doesn’t exist, according to drivers.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: When there’s no traffic, the ETLs stay at $0.75, because drivers have no incentive to pay to get out of nonexistent traffic. As general purpose lanes get congested, ETLs prices increase, going as high as $10.00, which attracts people wealthy or desperate enough to pay the prices to get to work or home faster. The idea is to have that price be high enough to keep people out of the ETLs, as not to create lanes just as congested as the general purpose lanes.

While flawed, this is the system as it was pitched to drivers. With this change, which caught everyone off guard, the system is significantly tweaked in WSDOT’s favor.

Here’s generally how the new system works: WSDOT looks at past year’s traffic patterns and assumes traffic will be similar. Consequently, they raise rates high early on, anticipating they’ll have to raise them anyway.

But this is devious.

In light traffic, maybe someone will pay the $0.75 for the lightest possible commute. That keeps them out of the general purpose lanes. But if it’s priced at, say, $4.25 for traffic that doesn’t exist, that same driver will scoff and stay with the general purpose lanes. The more people who do that, the more congested the general purpose lanes become.

Soon enough, the congestion gets bad enough to justify the $4.25 fee. So, in other words WSDOT is engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They claim to anticipate traffic, but it’s just creating it faster, which pushes more people into the ETLs, for a higher price, which they’ll happily collect.

“As is always the case whenever we adjust the algorithm, our goal is to provide a reliable trip for transit, carpoolers, and people choosing to pay a toll,” Foster claimed. “Our engineers continually monitor traffic and make adjustments to help keep traffic moving.”

That’s not at all what they’re engineers are doing. They’re claiming traffic exists, when it doesn’t, then creating traffic to justify higher toll prices. That’s the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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