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Taking its toll: I-405 toll lanes one year later

(WSDOT image)

The state’s social experiment with congestion pricing on I-405 is one year old. Tolling began a year ago today between Bellevue and Lynnwood.  What grade does it deserve? Some drivers say they’ve never had a better commute. Others would fill the swear jar daily with their hatred of the new system.

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From the state’s perspective, the launch really couldn’t have gone much better. Other than creating a daily nightmare in the northbound direction in Bothell, where we go from five lanes to three, state tolling director Patty Rubstello is happy with the results.

“We’re seeing high utilization,” she said.  “They’re (the commuters) are getting a benefit, and in most situations the general purpose lanes are working better as well.”

There have been more than 12 million trips in the tolls lanes. Drivers flocked to the lanes a lot sooner than expected.  Rubstello said the lanes are reaching the 45-mile-an-hour threshold and the average toll rate is under $2.

What Rubstello and the tolling division didn’t expect was how often the rate would hit the maximum $10. Experts thought it would be infrequent, not the daily occurrence it has become.

“Eighty percent of those using the Express Toll Lanes are paying $4 or less,” Rubstello said.  “On average, people are paying much less, but it’s during the peak people are willing to pay the $10 to get that faster trip.”

The silver lining in that — if you can consider it that — is that the state is making a boat load of money on the lanes. That money that has to go right back into the I-405 corridor for improvements.

“We thought in the first year that we would just be covering our operating costs,” Rubstello said.  “We’re clearing covering those and have enough to build this peak-use shoulder.”

The state is estimating a $20 million profit for this first year. Eleven million of that will go to adding hard shoulder driving between Canyon Park and Lynnwood.  The remainder must go into corridor improvements.

The state also failed to see the daily grind created in Bothell where the freeway goes from five lanes to three.  It’s hoping the shoulder driving in the afternoon will help alleviate congestion. The real solution is a decade away when the state finally updates the entire 522 interchange and adds a second lane between Bothell and Lynnwood.

The other complaint many drivers report is that their neighborhood streets are now jammed full of people avoiding I-405 entirely.  Rubstello said there’s no data showing that’s happening.

“We’re not seeing people diverting to other corridors,” she said. “For areas like Kirkland, the Woodinville area, the Kenmore area, we’re just not seeing it.”

That flies in the face of many drivers writing in to KIRO Radio, and to the eye test from I-405 tolling opponent State Representative Mark Harmsworth.

“I don’t understand why they can’t see this,” Harmsworth said.  “All they need to do is drive through Bothell.  The side-streets are absolutely more congested now.”

He also doesn’t believe the stats on usage and tolling prices.

“As much as WDOT likes to believe that this thing is working, it’s working for a very small percentage of the population that’s willing to pay $10 each way.”

Harmsworth said that’s just too high a price for most families to pay.

“Drivers are telling me day and night this thing is not working,” he said.  “We’ve got more congestion in the G-P (general purpose) lanes.”

Harmsworth will re-introduce legislation in Olympia to get rid of the Express Toll Lanes, if he is re-elected. His Democratic challenger Katrina Ondracek is also in favor of eliminating the tolls lanes. The law authorizing them gave WSDOT two years for this experiment. If it fails to accomplish an average 45 m.p.h. drive in the toll lanes, they can be eliminated. The other component is whether the tolls will generate enough money to sustain the system, but that’s already happening.

The state is already starting work on the Bellevue to Tukwila leg of the Express Toll Lanes on I-405, adding a lane between Bellevue and I-5 in Tukwila.  Contractors will also improve the 167 interchange, adding direct HOV access from the Valley Freeway I-405.

There is also a lot of concern from drivers that the state will raise the $10 maximum toll. Tolling director Rubstello said it’s a possibility, but not for a long time. She said the state needs to get a lot more data and to see how changes like shoulder driving impact the situation. The state transportation commission said it has no plans to raise the max, and it would need a lot of convincing to do so.

What’s your experience with the toll lanes?  Leave us a comment.





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