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Nearly 2 years in, I-405 express toll lanes miss 45 mile-per-hour benchmark

(MyNorthwest file photo)

The Washington state Legislature gave the state’s transportation department two years to prove that express toll lanes on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood were an effective way to improve congestion in the corridor. That two-year deadline is Sept. 27.

Are the lanes making the grade?

The Legislature OK’d the express toll lanes with two very specific benchmarks to hit over the first two years. If they don’t meet those goals, the Legislature could shut them down. The lanes need to generate enough money to cover their operation and maintenance and they must provide a 45-mile-an-hour trip 90 percent of the time during peak hours.

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State Tolling Director Ed Barry said the lanes are making more than enough money, according to data representing the first 18 months.

“The revenue is doing very well,” he said. “It’s more than meeting its goal.”

The toll lanes generated $38.6 million. Operations and maintenance costs were $13.6 million. That has put $25 million into a fund that can only be used on improvements along the I-405 corridor. That’s where the state found the $11 million to install hard shoulder driving north of Canyon Park earlier this year.

But when it comes to the 45-mile-per-hour benchmark, the express toll lanes are not making the grade.

“It’s not meeting the 45 miles-per-hour metric 90 percent of the time,” Barry said. “It’s close. We’re 82 percent, and it’s getting better with the peak-use shoulder open. But it’s the southbound, single-lane section that is the real challenge for us.”

Barry said that shoulder driving has pushed the entire northbound corridor over the speed threshold, at least between April and June. The southbound direction is still not meeting the goal. The full two-year data will be released at the end of the year.

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The tolling division admits the tolls are hitting the maximum $10 more often than it expected — nearly every morning — but Barry said most people are not paying that much.

“The average toll that we’re seeing is only $3 (actually $2.96), and that’s over the peak periods,” he said. “There are faster trips to be had out there, not at $10, but we realize that it does hit $10. People are concerned about that, but we like to say that ‘those are faster trips that people are getting for $10.’ There are also faster trips out there for much, much less.”

There are also no plans, at least for now, to raise the maximum toll above $10.

What about diversion?

I have drivers telling me all the time that their neighborhood streets are jammed now as people look to avoid the tolls. I see it on roads in south Snohomish County, through Woodinville and Bothell. It’s easy to blame the toll lanes, but their creation also came at a time with explosive growth. So is it diversion or just more people?

Barry is clear on what he believes.

“We don’t think diversion is an issue for this,” he said. “As the project has been around for two years, we think things have stabilized and people understand how it works. It’s working well and it will continue to work well.”

The state also said travel times in the general purpose lanes have improved along the corridor. As for how much faster the toll lanes are going than those general purpose lanes in the peak hours, the state said southbound drivers are going 20 mph faster. Northbound drivers are going 24 mph faster than the general purpose lanes.

What has your experience been in the express toll lanes?

Read more from KIRO Radio traffic reporter Chris Sullivan

Tell Chris about a Chokepoint or ask a traffic question @KIROTraffic via Twitter.

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