All lanes of Interstate 405 will be toll free on nights and weekends, beginning Friday, the state Transportation Commission decided Tuesday.
All lanes of Interstate 405 will be toll-free on nights and weekends, beginning Friday, the state Transportation Commission decided Tuesday.
The rule change — coming before the usual series of public hearings — is a reaction to motorist dissatisfaction this fall and winter about congestion on the freeway between Bellevue and Lynnwood.
The new Express Toll Lanes will be marked “Open to All” or “$0 toll” from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weeknights, and all weekend from 7 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m. Monday, along with six holidays.
There’s one hitch: The direct-access ramps in the center, at downtown Bellevue and Totem Lake, are still restricted to carpools of two or more people, even in the toll-free hours. That’s because they were built using Federal Transit Administration money, said toll spokesman Ethan Bergerson.
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During tolled hours on weekdays, solo drivers may still use these direct ramps by paying the toll. And at all times, drivers can only merge left into the toll lanes at designated areas.
Drivers have been grumbling and adapting on weekdays to the new I-405 lanes, where thousands have been paying as much as $10 to save travel time in the toll lanes since the program began Sept. 27.
However, the freeway on weekends tends to attract occasional users who lack the proper FlexPass to claim free carpool status. Other drivers are simply reluctant to pay a toll when they aren’t commuting. The result has been underuse of the toll lanes and worse traffic than before, critics have said.
The commissioners voted 7-0 to approve the changes as presented by Patty Rubstello, state tolling director.
They also invoked an emergency provision to make the change this weekend — a power legislators recently wrote into their supplemental transportation budget.
“We appreciate the support of the governor, Legislature and WSDOT as we work together to lessen the burden on the driving public of I-405 and the express toll lanes,” said a statement by commission Chairwoman Anne Haley, of Walla Walla.
The change falls far short of proposals by state Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, who filed a bill to completely repeal one of the two toll lanes in each direction between Bellevue and Bothell. North of Bothell, the toll corridor shrinks to just one lane each way — creating frequent bottlenecks as the overall freeway narrows and drivers weave.
House Democrats, who denied Harmsworth’s bill a hearing, subsequently sent WSDOT and the appointed commissioners a letter urging them to consider free night and weekend passage, as well as lane improvements.
“I’m pleased to see them taking this move,” Harmsworth said Tuesday. “It’s not enough to solve the problem at rush hour, but it will at least get traffic moving on the weekend.”
He said slowdowns have been showing up Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. around the I-405 junction at Highway 522, where those didn’t occur before.
The Legislature also approved Gov. Jay Inslee’s request for engineering money. The state will study hardening the shoulders for use as peak-time exit lanes in both directions at Bothell, and adding a northbound exit lane at Kirkland at a combined cost of up to $80 million.
The shoulder changes would create hazards if stalled vehicles can’t pull over, or if there’s less room for emergency vehicles, Jeff Merrill, president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, has warned. Harmsworth said he also has some concerns about safety.
I-405 toll rates are designed to change with traffic so that toll lanes are roomy enough to flow at 45 mph. Carpools with a special FlexPass may use toll lanes free with three people at peak times, two people off-peak.
State data compiled in January suggest that travel times improved in several directions, in particular an average 14-minute savings for southbound drivers using the toll lanes, and for transit buses.
However, new hot spots of congestion have formed at Bothell. And slowdowns are common between Highway 520 and south Kirkland, where northbound drivers merge, or hunt for access to the left-side lanes.
Bothell commuter David Hablewitz, creator of Stop I-405 Tolling, says he has collected 31,500 online and print signatures as of this week, calling to eliminate toll lanes. Hablewitz favors one carpool lane in each direction, for carpools of two people or more.
In her presentation, Rubstello predicted that removing the tolls at 7 p.m. will end afternoon rush-hour periods sooner but subtract some of the advantage that transit buses have on severely congested days.
The state expects to lose $600,000 a year by not collecting night and evening tolls.
Meanwhile, economic growth is adding pressure to local highways.
The latest Annual Traffic Scorecard, released Tuesday by the Kirkland-based Inrix traffic-data firm, shows Seattle ranked No. 6 in congestion among U.S. metro areas, with average delay of 66 hours in 2015 compared with going the speed limit. That’s a three-hour increase from the previous year.