Gov. Jay Inslee says he wants to make more room for cars on northbound Interstate 405, where thousands of motorists have found new congestion since toll lanes opened last fall.
Gov. Jay Inslee proposed Tuesday to create more space for cars on northbound Interstate 405, where commuters have complained about slowdowns since toll lanes opened last fall.
He is advocating two projects:
• Adding a lane on I-405 at Highway 520 to Northeast 70th Place in Kirkland, where it would become an exit-only lane. Costs might range from $5 million to $30 million, based on noise reduction and fish-protection needs.
• Strengthening the right shoulder of northbound I-405 in Bothell for use as a general lane beginning at Highway 527 and ending as an exit-only lane onto Interstate 5 at Lynnwood. It would open to traffic only in peak times, and at speeds far below the usual 60 mph freeway limit, as announced previously by tolling director Patty Rubstello. Costs could range from $30 million to $50 million.
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However, this road concept worries Trooper Jeff Merrill, president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, because it reduces the space for emergency vehicles and would confuse some motorists, he said.
“It’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction to a bad plan, and now we’re trying to arrange a quick fix to facilitate a higher level of traffic,” he said. He said that if troopers don’t have a place to pull over vehicles safely, chances are they’ll do less enforcement in those spots. “We’ll do whatever the Legislature asks us to, but we don’t want anything that’s unsafe.”
Inslee said he will request money for engineering in the supplemental transportation budget.
After that, it could take up to three years to deliver either or both projects, which require approval by the 2017 Legislature.
He also called for more personnel at the Good to Go customer-service centers, and a simpler website.
Inslee is presenting himself as a friend to motorists this election year, after Republicans just pushed the green-leaning Lynn Peterson out of her job as transportation secretary Feb. 5.
Opponents including GOP challenger Bill Bryant are seizing on toll snafus in an effort to weaken the incumbent. Bryant called for “freeing 405’s HOT lane” by converting one of the two special lanes each direction into a general traffic lane, then allowing two-person carpools into the only toll lane for free. That would likely unravel the toll program, as there wouldn’t be much room left for toll payers to join the bus-carpool lane.
Going southbound, peak travel times have improved about 14 minutes for toll payers compared to a year earlier, and seven minutes in other lanes. Northbound, general-traffic times from Bellevue to Lynnwood are about the same, but the thickest congestion moved from Kirkland to Bothell, the state says. Transit is moving faster.
About 600,000 different vehicle owners “have voted with their feet to use these toll lanes,” Inslee said.
“But we have also experienced new choke points that have developed and we have heard real frustration from real drivers,” he said.
Northbound delays from Bothell to Lynnwood are about four minutes worse than previously, he told reporters at the Washington State Department of Transportation traffic-control center in Shoreline.
The new 405 Express Toll Lanes allow solo drivers to pay a toll to enter the bus-carpool lane, ranging from 75 cents to $10. Prices rise to limit demand, with a goal of keeping tolled lanes at 45 mph, so that payers and carpools gain a faster trip. These are also known as HOT (high occupancy or toll) lanes.
Two toll lanes exist in each direction from Bellevue to Bothell, but in a bipartisan decision, the Legislature didn’t fund the whole corridor. So only one toll lane in each direction goes between Bothell and Lynnwood — and that transition area often screeches to a halt.
State Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, filed a bill in December to repeal one of the two toll lanes each way. It didn’t get a hearing in the House Transportation Committee, led by Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. But if lawmakers wanted, “it could be heard as early as next week,” Harmsworth wrote in response to Inslee’s announcements.
Previously, he said the state caused congestion by taking away general capacity to make toll lanes. And actually, Inslee’s proposed exit lane at Northeast 70th would simply restore an exit lane that existed before the toll-road conversion.
Since fall, 30,000 motorists have endorsed a stop405tolls.org website by commuter David Hablewitz of Bothell.
“The fact 600,000 people have driven these lanes doesn’t mean they’re voting for it. They don’t have a choice,” said Hablewitz, who showed up to watch the governor’s event.
Notably, neither Bryant nor Inslee called for building a second express-toll lane each way from Bothell to Lynnwood, which might cost $500 million with a direct-access ramp.
That segment didn’t make it into the $16 billion transportation package the Legislature passed last year, along with 11.9 cents in gas-tax increases.
Asked about that, Inslee said that given current funding, the projects he announced Tuesday are “probably the best bang for the buck.”
Inslee also endorsed bipartisan proposals to remove I-405 tolls on nights, weekends and holidays, possibly this spring.
Meanwhile, he said WSDOT would devote $10 million to hire and equip 10 more incident-response crews to clear stalls and crashes. Currently there are a dozen trucks on urban Puget Sound-area highways in a typical commute period.
After years of foot-dragging, the state will replace 33 old expansion joints on I-5 in Seattle, from Green Lake to Boeing Field. Steel plates and bolts occasionally break and cause emergency lane closures.
That work would be spread over three years and 15 weekend closures, at the same time worn concrete is replaced, said Lorena Eng, regional administrator. The engineering began, with encouragement from Peterson, immediately after a 10-mile backup on Nov. 4 when a joint failed, Eng said. A new $1.2 billion maintenance fund solved a longtime funding shortage for the project, she said.