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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Westneat: Seattle’s $15 toll is already too low

By Danny Westneat
Published: June 21, 2024, 6:01am

Don was out on the Valley Freeway the other day, headed south from Renton toward Auburn, when he noticed something curious. Something very Seattle.

He dropped me an email at 2:57 p.m.: “I think I found those millionaires you were looking for.”

Attached was a screenshot of the real-time tolling rates for the Highway 167 express lane. It’s a “fast lane” that solo drivers can pay to use, or drive in the general lanes for free.

The toll is a free-market feedback system — the more congested the traffic, the higher it goes. The theory is that few drivers will pay the top rates, keeping the lane moving fast.

A few months ago, the state acknowledged it had run up against the reality of the area’s 54,200 millionaires. Officials boosted the max toll from $10 to $15, as so many drivers were paying that the “Lexus lanes” were often as clogged as the free ones.

This new $15 toll, though, is also proving to be but a bug on the windshield of Seattle wealth.

On a recent Thursday, they’d hit the max toll before 3 in the afternoon. What piqued driver Don’s interest were the travel times. The system said it was 14 minutes from Renton to Auburn in the general lanes, and 11 minutes in the special toll lane.

“People are willingly forking over $15 to go three minutes faster,” he reported. “What a world.”

Enough drivers paid the max $15 toll that the 167 fast lane had slowed to 16 minutes within an hour, versus 21 minutes in the free lanes.

Over on the Eastside, on Interstate 405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood, the toll maxed out at $15 on Thursday for more than three hours. So many drivers paid it that the fast lane eventually slowed to a crawl.

I am so Midwest cheap that $15 tolls seem nuts to me. I drive around on the Interstate 90 bridge to avoid the 520 bridge tolls, which are only $3 or $4. For the Seattle area, though, the problem isn’t that the $15 Lexus lane tolls are too high. They’re already too low.

“If you raised the tolls to $50, plenty of people here would still pay it,” suggests Will Knedlik, of the group Washington State Good Roads and Transportation Association. “Somewhere is a point of equilibrium, but we are nowhere near reaching it.”

This is a prime signal of how frothy the region’s wealth has become. As well as how it can exert subtle pressure on people down the economic ladder.

The Lexus lanes are voluntary, so regular schmoes, or cheap bastards like me, don’t have to pay if they don’t want to. Yet as the toll price goes up, drivers are meant to opt out of the fast lane into the regular lanes instead.

So if the toll ratcheting works, the lanes for the schmoes get more crowded. By design. While the Lexus lanes get more . . . Lexusy.

Knedlik said the toll lanes tend to be used by “people who have so much money that these tolls mean nothing to them,” or by employees who get the tolls paid by their companies.

“There’s no question these lanes are generally off-limits to regular people and poor people,” he said.

The one democratic thing is that carpoolers can ride in the Lexus lanes for free. The wealthy, of course, can simply buy their way out of this democratic, environmental option.

Some days the Lexus lanes work better than the day described above. But one tolling expert suggested that the long-term answer is to go free market casino with the roadways. Let the toll float as high as drivers wish to pay — $20, $50, no limit. “If you have a cap, it kind of stands in the way of the market clearing the lanes,” he said.

Sure, clearing the lanes . . . of the riffraff. Of course that expert is also proving to be right. If we have drivers paying $15 to save only three minutes, then for the tolls to work it’s sadly inevitable they’ll need to rise.

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Bring on the infinity tolling, I guess. Might as well if we’re selling road access to the highest bidders. It’d be a test — we’d finally get a glimpse of just how much disposable income is sloshing around in crazy rich Seattle.

But if you need to reach me that day, I’ll be working from home.