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One way to fix I-405: Higher express lane tolls

The I-405 express toll lanes have a maximum toll set at $10. (WSDOT)

Former Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna says there’s one way to fix the I-405 express toll lanes. Just raise the toll limit.

“There is a pretty easy way to make sure you hit 45 mph or faster (in the express toll lanes), 90 percent of the time and that is to allow the top rate to go up from $10 to a higher amount like $12 or $14,” McKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “That’s going to chase some of the cars out of those lanes and result in higher speeds.”

RELATED: Debate brewing over I-405 express toll lanes

State transportation officials are at a crossroads with the I-405 express toll lanes. When the lanes were established in 2015, it was agreed that the state would evaluate their success two years later. Wednesday marked two years.

There are two main criteria that the lanes are being held to:

  • The lanes have to pay for themselves. They do. They have far exceeded revenue expectations by millions of dollars.
  • The express toll lanes must flow at an average 45 miles per hour, 90 percent of the time.

The lanes are averaging 45 mph about 82 percent of the time.

State officials are now debating what the intent of the law is. Does it mean one or both criteria must be met?

“The statute is not clear because it does not say that all performance measures are not being met results in termination, it just says performance measures … it’s hard to tell if that was deliberate or just sloppy drafting,” McKenna said.

“I have to say, I do see the state transportation commission’s point when they say the law is not as clear as you might think,” he said.

The state’s transportation commission is being cautious as to how it interprets the statute. State Rep. Mark Harmsworth, however, is certain that the lanes must go. Harmsworth has been a vocal opponent of the lanes since day one.

McKenna said the Legislature will have to determine what the law intends; both, or just one measurement to continue operating the express toll lanes. He also notes the Legislature could just bypass the debate altogether and cancel the toll lanes.

“I think that would be a mistake,” McKenna said. “Because the fact is, hitting 45 mph 82 percent of the time is pretty close to 90 percent. So as a matter of public policy, they do seem to be working.”

RELATED: Express toll lane debate could be determined by a single word

Which speaks to his point that if the state wanted to solve that 8 percent performance gap, it could raise the maximum toll to free up some space in the lanes.

“There’s a debate to be had about the pros and cons of doing that,” McKenna said. “The fact is, studies in other jurisdictions show that a lot of the people using those lanes are carpenters or electricians, for example. People for whom getting to the next job is important because they don’t make money unless they work. A lot of the people using the lanes are not Lexus drivers, but blue-collar workers and others who value their time by the hour.”

Reema Griffith with the Washington State Transportation Commission has previously said that raising the maximum toll limit on I-405 is a “last resort action.”

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