Everyone would benefit by fixing the Highway 522 and I-405 bottleneck and building out the express toll lanes to Lynnwood.
RECENT events are a dizzying display of how much trouble can come from the white-hot mixing of politics and transportation policy. It is unfortunate that all of the positive aspects of the Interstate 405 express toll lanes are being sucked into the cauldron.
There is no dispute that data show the recently opened I-405 express toll lanes have improved traffic between the Highway 522 interchange and downtown Bellevue — even as the booming Eastside economy pushes the interstate into the state’s top-ranked gridlocked corridors.
Yet there is still a bottleneck on I-405 north of Highway 522 that needs fixing. But even there, the express toll lane is better serving drivers willing to pay for faster travel.
What everyone in the region needs to know is that the full promise of express toll lanes on I-405 will not be realized until two long-delayed, critical projects are built:
• The first is fixing the chokepoint and improving traffic flow at the Highway 522 interchange by widening I-405 across the Sammamish River.
• The second is the lane widening needed to build out the additional express lanes — northbound and southbound — between Bothell and Lynnwood, just as some months ago that work was finished through Bellevue.
Together, these two projects were previously estimated to cost about $500 million.
Legislators eager to score quick political favor by pouncing on express toll lanes need to look in the mirror if they’re talking about accountability. Just seven months ago, with much ballyhoo, the Legislature enacted a big gas-tax increase to put $10 billion of a $16-billion transportation package into highway projects, even including megaprojects elsewhere in the state. But if legislators truly wanted to fix the big I-405 bottleneck, that train left without them.
Neither the Highway 522 interchange nor the Bothell to Interstate 5 express toll-lane widening made the gas-tax project list. How on earth, even in Olympia, could they have allowed that to happen?
What’s worse is this: We’re going deaf from the endless debate whether to invest in highways or transit. But the two I-405 projects — the Highway 522 interchange and the express toll-lane widenings — unquestionably are in that rare class of magic opportunities that would benefit everybody.
If the projects were funded so the express toll lanes functioned as planned — premium lanes all the way from I-5 to Interstate 90 — they would speed up toll-paying highway drivers along with every bus, every Microsoft Connector rider and every passenger in hundreds of van pools.
Grabbing and holding that dual-purpose express-lane opportunity is one of the very few near-term options for fighting traffic gridlock on I-405 as Eastside travel demand continues to grow.
Any doubters about benefits of a strong rapid bus system should look at the surging ridership on the new RapidRide routes King County Metro quickly, and at low cost, put into operation into downtown Seattle.
With the willing-to-pay toll levels sometimes peaking higher than expected, the I-405 express lanes have come out of the blocks financially in the black. That means toll revenues could be put back to use helping fund projects like the Highway 522 interchange, the express-lane widening and other I-405 improvements, benefiting everyone, including toll payers.
But to mollify those users of outmoded, inefficient and free carpool lanes, legislators now recommend taking tolls off for nights, weekends and holidays, even when demand is high.
That has an obvious downside presenting another look-in-the-mirror accountability moment for legislators pitching a quick political bone to drivers favoring free ways in preference to improved travel. Statewide taxpayers would get unfairly nickeled and dimed for their hard-earned gas taxes to make up for the political decision to alter the hours of toll collections — revenue that should help pay for improvements to I-405 projects.
Here, instead, is what we should do:
First, get the rest of the I-405 improvements, including the entire express toll lane system, on a fast track for completion. Fund the projects now, even if something less important has to be scaled back or delayed on the big statewide highway project list.
Second, convene legislators, local officials, Eastside employers, King County Metro, Community Transit, van-pool sponsors, park-and-ride developers and Sound Transit to make I-405 the model of how highways and transit can perform together in highway lanes made faster by smart tolling. Get the best performance for everyone from all that pavement.
Finally, treat citizens who use our transportation system with at least minimal respect. If people are willing to pay for the roads they need, for goodness sake, let them. Then use that toll money to improve traffic and make it easier for everyone to get where they want and need to go.