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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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A $15 toll? How about $18? WSDOT may blow the lid off I-405 express-lane prices

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SEATTLE — Washington state transportation officials are proposing to collect tolls from solo drivers on weekends, extend the hours when two-person carpools are tolled, and boost the current $10 maximum rate to $15 or even $18 for peak trips on I-405.

The Washington State Transportation Commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday on starting public outreach, plus technical studies of the income and traffic effects. A final decision is expected next year.

Toll changes would apply in 2025 to the left lanes of I-405 and Highway 167, serving Seattle’s suburban crescent through Lynnwood, Bothell, Kirkland, Bellevue, Renton, Kent and Auburn.

They’re intended to make up for money lost during the pandemic, and stave off a feared breakdown of toll lanes into stop-and-go traffic, as commuters return. Prices above $10 would deter some people from entering toll lanes, until volumes thin out and traffic stabilizes near 45 mph — the ideal speed for the most cars per hour to pass through.

The timeline also merges with the widening of I-405 between Renton and Bellevue, a roadway that has offered three clogged lanes each way since 1984. When finished in mid-2025, there will be two general lanes and two express-toll lanes each way.

Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Transportation awarded a construction contract for a second toll lane each way in the Bothell I-405 segment by 2028, where amid lack of foresight and money, the state caused a pinch point in 2015 by building a single toll lane each way in Bothell, instead of two, as on the Kirkland stretch.

Express toll lanes let drivers pay for a speedier trip than the clogged general lanes. An algorithm dynamically changes the variable price. When congestion thickens, the toll price rises.

I-405 toll lanes often hit the $10 max despite WSDOT’s original assurances that rates would rarely surpass $4. Sometimes the express-toll lanes are too full to meet the 45 mph target in state law. A part-time shoulder lane was added northbound approaching Lynnwood, to partly relieve the mess.

Toll income across the U.S. took a hit during the pandemic, prompting talk of bailouts in Washington state. By now, driving has reverted to last decade’s volumes, including express-toll trips.

“As congestion worsens on this corridor, in the GP [general purpose] lanes or free lanes, as we watch population grow in this corridor especially on the South End, the value to people’s time is something we shouldn’t underestimate,” said Reema Griffith, the transportation commission’s executive director.

In September, midweek data showed southbound Highway 167 hitting its $9 ceiling in 74% of peak afternoon hours, and I-405 reached its $10 max 40% of southbound morning peak hours, said Carl See, the commission’s deputy director.

“A significant failure,” Griffith interjected.

“If you’re paying $9 right now on 167 and you’re still in traffic, that value you should be gaining with that $9 you’re spending, especially if you’re low income — you’re not gaining that value,” See said. Officials say a higher ceiling would clear the toll lanes enough that people gain the speed they paid for.

WSDOT reported I-405 toll lanes moved an average 20 mph faster than general lanes at peak hours last year, while carrying 31,500 daily vehicles plus 1,554 daily transit riders. Traffic is growing but 2023 data weren’t immediately available.

Here are options commissioners will study:

  • Raise the maximum toll rate in severe congestion, from the current $10 ($9 on Highway 167) to $15, or possibly $18.
  • Keep tolls in effect weekdays until 8 p.m., an hour longer than currently.
  • Require three people per car to travel free in the express toll lanes during peak hours. That’s already policy for I-405 but two people currently go free on Highway 167.
  • Extend weekday morning peaks a fifth hour, until 10 a.m. This charges two-person carpools for an hour longer.
  • Begin weekday afternoon peak an hour earlier, at 2 p.m. for a total five hours.
  • Collect tolls on weekends for solo drivers, 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • Raise minimum rates to 75 cents or $1, a 25- to 50-cent hike.

Commissioners also will consider an interim $12 cap on these two highways during 2024, Griffith said.

A crucial question is what does WSDOT mean by a maximum toll?

Conceptual price levels like $10, $12, $15 or $18 pertain to each of three segments: Lynnwood-Bellevue, future Bellevue-Renton, or Renton to Auburn and points south, explained See.

In theory, a motorist could pile up $54 in tolls on a 50-mile drive from Lynnwood to Puyallup. But only 2% of trips occur within all three segments, which are rarely expected to max out concurrently, state research says.

Already the Lynnwood-Bellevue corridor contains three subsegments, and others will, too. So if somebody drives from Totem Lake to downtown Kent during heavy traffic, they might pay $7.50 to Bellevue, $15 more over the full Bellevue-Renton segment, plus $5.75 to Kent, or some other custom combo.

Most of the 37 U.S. highway routes with dynamic lane pricing have no maximum toll, said Patrick Jones, CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a pro-toll trade group. Occasionally extremes occur, such as $40 along I-66 entering Washington, D.C., he said, which some people are willing to pay.

“If you have a cap, it kind of stands in the way of the market clearing the lanes,” he said. An additional 24 tollways charge standard prices that rise during known congestion hours, like WSDOT’s Highway 520 bridge and Highway 99 tunnel.

Will Knedlik, president of the Washington State Good Roads & Transportation Association, said prices surpassing $10, and new tolls on weekends, could fuel frustration.

“It does make the lanes kind of more ‘Lexus Lanes’ in reality,” Knedlik said. “There’s this craziness that we can do these things and find a way to help poor people use them. It’s purely aspirational. We aren’t going to find a way to make the lanes more democratic.”

Hampton Roads, Va., established a fund where low-income drivers can apply annually for toll discounts, said Jones, with the national tolling association. (Seattle-area transit agencies provide a low-income ORCALift farecard for $1 bus and rail trips.)

No such program exists for WSDOT highways, but Griffith said low-income relief will be examined.

David Hablewitz, who gathered 30,000 signatures seeking to “Stop 405 Tolls” in 2016, said the upcoming Renton segment should be configured to three general lanes and a free bus-carpool lane — zero tolls. Two-person carpools are the easiest way to move more people with the same volume of cars, he said. Hablewitz also contends the plan makes driving more complex.

“I could write a test that 99% of the population wouldn’t pass,” Hablewitz said. “This is a nightmare, exactly what we expected. This is because the state is losing money.”

Griffith said the plan will standardize today’s differing prices and hours for the whole 40 miles, and making tolls understandable is top priority.

WSDOT’s latest fiscal report shows express toll lanes lost $1.9 million in third quarter 2022 due to equipment and maintenance cost, then netted $3.9 million over the next two quarters. The 405/167 fund held a positive $359 million balance March 31, but state reports also predict 2023-25 income for WSDOT’s five tollways will run below pre-pandemic numbers.

Tolls recover only a fraction of the cost to build I-405 lanes, the Highway 520 bridge and Highway 99 tunnel, though the 2007 Tacoma Narrows Bridge is mostly toll-funded. Faced with construction inflation, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature added $500 million in federal pandemic-relief money to sustain work on Highways 405 and 520.

Sound Transit is developing a bus-rapid transit network that travels I-405 express-toll lanes and Highway 518, from Lynnwood to Burien. The $1.3 billion corridor isn’t projected to open until 2029.

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