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Life in the Lexus Lanes: I-405’s new class division

KIRO Radio's Dori Monson believes the new I-405 express toll lanes has created a class division. (WSDOT, Flickr)
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We’re only a week in and the new I-405 express toll lanes are uncovering more about drivers’ attitudes than expected.

One issue: Some express toll lane drivers find it difficult to reach their exits.

After coasting through the express lanes, some drivers are having trouble crossing the much slower general purpose lanes to get to their exit.

There are two core causes, according to KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson: design flaws and toll-lane envy. Or more accurately, as Monson argues, class envy between drivers in the slower general purpose lanes and wealthier drivers who can afford the express toll lanes. Some listeners have dubbed the express toll lanes the “Lexus Lanes.”

“We had an email from a guy the other day and he said it makes him sick looking over there,” said producer Jake. “He calls it the ‘Lexus Lane.’ It makes him sick. He can’t afford to use it every single day; he will use it in a pinch. But it’s just a lane for people with all this extra money.”

Tolls have averaged $1-1.50 during peak times on I-405 &#8212 depending on direction and the time of the commute. The goal of the new lanes is to keep vehicles traveling at 45 miles per hour; much faster than in the general purpose lanes during peak hours.

“Think about this: You’re in the general purpose lane, you’re just stewing because your lane is gridlocked, but the toll lane &#8212 with all the Lexuses, BMWs and Mercedes &#8212 is moving just great,” Monson said. “And now that Mercedes wants to cut in front of you to get to the next exit.”

“The people in the general purpose lanes are saying, ‘No. I’m not letting them in,'” he said.

Monson also credits passive-aggressive Seattle-area drivers, who will, for example, drive slow in a left lane and force other drivers to move around them in the right lanes. That passive-aggressiveness could be part of why toll lane drivers are having trouble re-entering the general purpose lanes.

“That’s why we are having these problems. It’s a combination of being the most passive-aggressive drivers in the country and the fact that there is great class envy.”

Drivers may have reacted with more than envy during the opening week of the express toll lanes.

In the first week I-405’s express toll lanes opened, collisions in the tolled stretches nearly doubled &#8212 going from 48 during the same time last year, to 119.

“There is obviously some kind of design problem in all of this if you have a near [doubling] in the number of accidents along that stretch of road,” Monson said.

Related: First week of I-405 shows improved drive times, double the collisions

That stretch is primarily between Canyon Park and Lynnwood, notes KIRO Radio Traffic Reporter Chris Sullivan, and includes approximately four miles that are not part of the express toll lane system.

The Washington State Patrol pulled over 372 cars during that opening week, but troopers were mostly handing out warnings in an effort to educate drivers about how to use and interact with the express toll lanes. A total of 40 tickets were handed out.

Crossing the double white lines separating the express toll lanes from the general purpose lanes was the most prevalent issue for troopers. They pulled over 222 drivers for that issue alone.

Once in an express lane, a driver cannot exit until a break in the solid double white lines.

Drive times, however, reportedly improved during the week. The Washington State Department of Transportation released initial data collected from the first week, which indicates that drive times were down and volumes in the express toll lanes were up.

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