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News / Northwest

What $15 tolls could mean for Washingon drivers, state’s budget

By Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times
Published: February 13, 2024, 12:51pm

BOTHELL — Along with three rows of “$10.00” in lights, Interstate 405 drivers on a crowded morning can see what looks like moss growing on the white signs above.

Those green edges underscore how the maximum tolls haven’t changed since 2015, when the Washington State Department of Transportation opened its express toll lanes between Lynnwood and Bellevue, mainly as a congestion management tool. Pay up, and you can enter a faster lane.

Prices will finally change March 1, when the state raises the highest toll to $15, on I-405 and Highway 167 between Renton and Auburn. Under dynamic pricing next month, the toll rate changes at a minimum of $1 as often as every five minutes.

WSDOT is making the change for two reasons. Higher maximum tolls are meant to deter some drivers from entering, officials say, so the toll lanes nearly always flow at 45 mph. Second, the state needs more money to keep up with national construction inflation.

The evening peak period will go an hour later, so three-person carpools are required to enter the I-405 toll lanes for free on weekdays from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Carpools of two people can still go free on 167.)

To many drivers, tolling rules are a mystery. Traffic Lab explores some common questions here.

Are tolls solving congestion?

Yes, for people who pay.

Those in the free general lanes are more apt to experience minimal relief, or up to an hour of frustration and jealousy.

Last Wednesday at 7:11 a.m., an $8.75 toll in Bothell bought a cruise through the chokepoint there at 35 mph to 50 mph, providing a 20-minute overall trip to Bellevue and 20 minutes saved. Repeating the trip in general lanes at 8:21 a.m., when stop-and-go traffic began in Lynnwood, resulted in a 41-minute ride to Bellevue, twice as long.

That morning roughly fits WSDOT findings that, on average, traffic moves through toll lanes 20 mph quicker than in the general lanes at the busiest times.

Almost all congestion occurred in Bothell, where I-405 provides only two general lanes and one tolled lane southbound. In Kirkland there are at least three general lanes and two tolled. So maybe road capacity is the main factor, not pricing.

“I wonder how many more people could be carried in the general purpose lanes that WSDOT refuses to expand?” said Mariya Frost, transportation analyst for Kemper Development in Bellevue, which has long favored adding free lanes. In the late 2010s, the state did convert a northbound shoulder to evening-peak travel approaching Lynnwood, responding to pressure from motorists and Eastside legislators.

Ed Barry, the WSDOT toll director, counters that express-toll lanes do benefit everybody, by boosting total capacity. Five-lane I-405 carries 108,000 cars a day southbound, compared with only 87,000 on southbound I-5 at the Seattle-Shoreline city limit without tolled lanes, he said.

“When we have the lanes that approach 45 mph, we just get more throughput,” Barry said.

How is that possible?

If tolls are properly set, the lane is supposed to operate at 45 mph, the ideal pace to carry 2,000 vehicles per hour. Former WSDOT Secretary Doug MacDonald has likened the physics to rice in a funnel. If the grains (cars) are poured as a clump they’re stuck, but steady pouring allows more through.

State law requires express toll lanes to flow at 45 mph during 90% of commute hours. The success rate was only 87% on I-405 and 63% on Highway 167 during early 2023, the Washington State Transportation Commission reported.

Traffic has returned to pre-pandemic volumes in most of the state. And an average 35,800 vehicles per weekday used I-405 toll lanes in the fiscal year ending mid-2023. Tolls averaged $3.59 over commuting hours, says WSDOT.

Volumes continue to increase, along with traffic jams.

General purpose-lane travel times increased by three to nine minutes, and toll lane times by one to three minutes, in October 2023 compared with a year earlier, the commission says. As of September, midweek data showed southbound Highway 167 hitting its $9 ceiling in 74% of peak afternoon hours, and I-405 reached its $10 max in 40% of southbound morning peak hours, the commission reported.

“The problem is you pay $10, and you still get stuck in congestion,” said Mark Hallenbeck, retired director of the Washington State Transportation Center, at the University of Washington.

Raising the cap to $15 should solve the problem, he predicted.

While adding more non-toll lanes can improve traffic for a while, experience in many cities shows they attract “induced demand,” when motorists take more trips, or car-dependent homes and businesses sprawl near growing highways.

“Once the five lanes fill, that will result in everybody being stuck in congestion,” Hallenbeck said. Cars will have to eventually exit where room runs out, he said. “Then new bottlenecks will magically appear.”

Do tolls pay for better highways?

Just a portion.

By state law, toll income must be reinvested where it’s collected, which WSDOT is doing on its combined 405/167 corridor.

But of the $2.5 billion in I-405 and Highway 167 widenings scheduled from 2021-29, including the Renton-Bellevue project, about 30%, or $762 million, is expected from tolls, according to the Legislature’s 2023 transportation project lists.

The rest could come from gas taxes, license and vehicle fees, or federal grants. The state Legislature, overwhelmed by a budget tsunami in transportation, could siphon billions from the general fund, leaving less for education, the legal system and public health.

WSDOT hopes the March 1 toll changes will reduce a $277 million budget gap to $211 million for projects in the 405/167 corridor ravaged by construction inflation.

This shortfall happened mainly on last year’s contract, signed at $834 million, to build a second toll lane each way through Bothell, loosening a bottleneck over Highway 522 and the Sammamish River.

The higher $15 ceiling, plus longer peak hours, should add $4.8 million to $8.3 million between March 2024 and June 2025, the Washington State Transportation Commission estimates. Additional cash will flow in after new toll lanes between Renton and Bellevue open next year.

Road-user charges — the ultimate statewide user fee, which would charge drivers based on miles driven — are another long-term option. But those are meant to replace, not supplement, the state’s 49.4-cent per gallon gas tax. Tolls would continue in tandem with mileage fees, Barry predicted.

Are the new policies fair?

Drivers pay the toll voluntarily, when they enter these left-side lanes. Most opt for the slower, general purpose lanes.

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Like any priced good, the lanes are , who make far more trips overall.

That’s not really a problem for unlimited-toll Interstate 66 outside of Washington, D.C., where a lobbyist might pay $40 to drive in from his country house and charge the toll to clients, Hallenbeck said.

“The problem we have with $10 lanes is there are plenty of people in Western Washington who can’t afford $10 on a periodic basis,” he said.

Nonetheless, Hallenbeck said, based on a 2019 University of Washington study that he co-authored, the WSDOT express toll lanes benefit poorer people on rare occasions, such as a day care pickup deadline, or job interview. As tolls rose, the median income of toll payers dropped from $93,000 at $4 to only $61,000 when they hit $10.

“Low-income people use them fairly infrequently, but when they used it, they actually paid more,” Hallenbeck said. “No low-income person ever pays minimum fee.”

Public transit riders depend upon express toll-lanes flowing fast, to make buses a good alternative to driving. Last year there were 2,146 average weekday bus boardings on I-405 and 422 on Highway 167, far below pre-pandemic use. Sound Transit will spend more than $1.3 billion for ramps, parking, stations and buses to provide a high-frequency I-405 service in 2029 called Stride.

If tolls beyond $10 keep more cars in the general lanes, that imposes a subtle time tax on everybody who doesn’t pay tolls, though WSDOT predicts a minimal effect. In the range of $7 to $9, tolls will rise faster than they do today, to avoid abrupt changes in price and congestion.

What’s happening to other WSDOT toll roads?

Tolls on the Highway 520 floating bridge increased in July, and currently range from $1.25 each direction overnight to $4.50 at peak commute hours, based on a consistent schedule.

The Highway 99 tunnel uses a similar toll schedule, ranging from $1.20 to $2.70 each way, after a minor increase in July.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the only route meant to be entirely self-funded by tolls, charges $4.50 for Good to Go pass holders, or $5.50 cash, eastbound only, after a 75-cent decrease in late 2022, when lawmakers transferred other money there.

Motorists who don’t have a pass are billed by mail, for an extra $2 per trip.

WSDOT last year resumed collecting $5 late fees and $40 civil penalties for unpaid trips, after a pandemic hiatus. However, drivers can seek a one-time amnesty by calling customer service at 866-936-8246.

Where do we fit in the world of tolling?

Washington is among 35 states with at least one toll road, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

These total 27,354 lane-miles, or about 8.8% of U.S. freeways, a federal inventory says. There are 328 tolled corridors, of which only 54 are express-toll segments like I-405 where drivers pay to escape clogged free lanes.

Most toll roads charge all lanes, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the Highway 99 tunnel and the Highway 520 floating bridge.

More toll roads are headed to Washington state.

Next up is the I-405 southern segment between Renton and Bellevue, where a widening project will result in two tolled lanes, two general lanes and more exit-only lanes by mid-2025.

Later this decade, new highway extensions will toll all lanes: Highway 167 linking Puyallup to Fife and the Port of Tacoma, and Highway 509 from Burien to the I-5/Highway 516 junction in Kent.

Tolls are expected on the proposed I-5 Interstate Bridge Replacement, over the Columbia River into Oregon, to recover a fraction of the $6 billion cost.

Is it true the money goes to a tolling firm in Texas?

It’s an urban legend. Toll companies do make money here, but not the lion’s share.

Payments in 2023 to Plano, Texas-based ETAN, and two other companies, to run the toll-processing system totaled $14.9 million statewide. That outlay includes 100 jobs in Renton, said Jennifer Charlebois, WSDOT deputy tolling director.

If you count other expenses — cash toll-takers at the Narrows, equipment, postage, credit card fees, enforcement and consultants — the tab reached $54.8 million statewide, out of $196 million total tolls paid.

Therefore, for every dollar in tolls, 26 cents gets consumed for overhead.

That leaves 74 cents to fund highway maintenance, pay for past construction and save money for lane expansions. Even that margin barely makes a dent in freeway construction costs.

What about cheating?

WSDOT doesn’t have data about how many drivers dodge express tolls by weaving around the cameras or by flipping Good to Go transponders to carpool mode while driving solo. Tinted windows, covered license plates and mannequins are used to flout toll or carpool-lane regulations.

About $915,000 in toll income paid for troopers to work overtime on express-toll lane enforcement last year. Thousands of solo drivers use the free carpool lane in the I-405 Renton S-curves, which has only three lanes total.

The Washington State Patrol says troopers issued about 2,700 citations for toll evasion last year, along with hundreds of warnings and carpool-lane tickets, in the 167/405 corridor.

Concrete barriers are one way to prevent weaving, and common in California. In WSDOT’s future, three more direct-access toll interchanges at Highway 527, Highway 522 and Kirkland raise the question of whether toll and free lanes can be separated, with six total entrances available in Bothell and Kirkland.

The state doesn’t believe there’s enough space on I-405 for barriers, said Charlebois, WSDOT deputy tolling director.

In addition, said Hallenbeck, the retired director of the Washington State Transportation Center, it’s better not to have barriers, so that when crashes block multiple lanes, drivers can use the toll-lane space to maneuver around the wreckage.

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