With tolled express lanes set to open on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood this fall, the state is considering variable pricing of up to $10 a trip as well as changing the number of people for a carpool from 2 to 3.
For the past four years, Tehmosp Khan has carpooled with a colleague from their homes in Shoreline to their jobs at an avionics engineering firm in Redmond along an increasingly congested Interstate 405.
He says he’s sacrificed the convenience of having a car at his disposal every day for the greater good of “doing my part to keep Seattle green.”
But under a proposal for the new I-405 express toll lanes set to open this fall, a two-person carpool won’t be enough to avoid new fees. The Washington State Transportation Commission is considering requiring carpools of at least three people at peak hours, plus an annual pass, to use the express lanes for free. Other drivers would have to pay between 75 cents and $10 — in cases of extreme congestion — to travel one way between Bellevue and Lynnwood, depending on traffic.
Final public meeting on I-405 tolls
The Washington State Transportation Commission will consider three-person carpools and tolls up to $10 a trip for the new I-405 express toll lanes.
6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday,
Kirkland City Hall, 123 Fifth Ave., Kirkland
Comments may be emailed to: transc@wstc/wa/gov
Source: Washington State Department of Transportation
“That’s a chunk of money for somebody who’s trying to do the right thing and reduce his carbon footprint,” said Khan. “Finding a third person will be hard.”
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Bigger carpools are just one of many changes for the widened corridor between Bellevue and Lynnwood being planned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to speed up traffic flow and make commute times more predictable.
Drivers on I-405 experience some of the worst traffic in the state, with up to eight hours of congestion a day, according to a 2014 state congestion report.
A 16-mile trip from Lynnwood to Bellevue during the morning commute averaged 44 minutes in 2013. But to ensure on-time arrival 19 of 20 days, the report said, drivers needed to allow almost 70 minutes. Transit gets stalled in the same bad traffic. It took buses an average 45 minutes to make the morning commute.
The seven-member Transportation Commission already has held two lightly attended public meetings on the new toll lanes. Members are expected to vote on rates and carpool size Wednesday night at their meeting in Kirkland.
The two new HOT (High Occupancy or Tolled) lanes, two in each direction between Bellevue and Bothell and a single lane each way between Bothell and Lynnwood, will have multiple entry and exit points, three zones, and variable tolls depending on the length of the trip and the congestion.
With the complexity also come high operating costs, about $5 million rising to almost $8 million a year by 2021, according to state estimates — totaling three-fourths of the toll revenue.
With the rocky launch of tolling on the Highway 520 bridge in 2011 and ongoing complaints about a Good to Go electronic-billing system that quickly racks up high penalties for delinquent payments, the opening of a new tolling system on one of the region’s busiest freeways raises concerns about implementation.
“It’s very important that WSDOT gets this right. They have to make a case for the costs and the ease of use,” said Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Academy, a nonprofit transportation-policy institute that has promoted and monitored HOT lanes on the West Coast for 10 years.
Agnew said that while tolled express lanes have met initial resistance both here and around the country, once commuters experience less congestion in all lanes as well as the option to buy into the tolled lanes when travel time is critical, public opinion shifts.
“In general, HOT lanes are very successful around the country because they work,” Agnew said.
But others don’t think the operating costs are justifiable. Vic Bishop, chairman-elect of the Eastside Transportation Association, points to WSDOT estimates that the state will lose half a million dollars on tolling the first year, and spend about $41 million on maintenance and operations the next five years while its revenue will total $54 million.
“It’s an incredible cost to collect the tolls,” Bishop said.
The net toll revenue gets significantly better after that, when the southern stretch of I-405, between Bellevue and Renton, is completed and can also be tolled.
That segment, estimated to cost more than $1 billion, has yet to be funded by the Legislature and built.
Bishop also raises a familiar complaint about imposing tolls on roads that were built with public funds to begin with.
“They’re using gas-tax money to pay for new lanes that they’re now going to charge us to get into,” he said.
The high end of the toll range initially proposed by the state Transportation Commission was $15. In November, four Republican state senators warned that was too much.
“It was way out of line with what they’d been telling us and what the rates already are on 167,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island.
The $10 peak toll now being considered for periods of extraordinary congestion is comparable to tolls on Highway 167, which are set between 50 cents and $9. The average toll is about $1.75, said Patricia Michaud, spokeswoman for the WSDOT tolling division. And the $9 peak has been imposed fewer than a dozen times since tolls started in 2008.
Sonny Putter, a former mayor of Newcastle, said that with gas-tax revenue declining as cars become more fuel efficient or run on electricity, highway user fees, including tolls, will become increasingly important to fund transportation projects.
And he predicted that the complexity of the I-405 system will be quickly mastered by commuters who use it every day. He called the optional tolls “cheap insurance” when someone needs a reliable commute.
“If I need to make a trip between Bellevue and Lynnwood, I will now have a choice I did not have before,” Putter said.
But with projections for growth on the Eastside showing more people and more jobs in the coming decade, some observers wonder whether the wider road, even tolled, will simply fill up again.
“If in 10 years, 405 is so jammed you can’t buy more space, why are we going through this?” asked Hans Gundersen, a financial manager who lives in Redmond and studies transportation issues. What’s really needed, he said, are options that expand overall capacity, such as more park-and-ride lots, more buses and more light rail.
And he said that while most workers don’t have the option of changing their hours or their commutes, employers could do more to subsidize transit and encourage telecommuting and flexible work schedules.
“A toll is simply another tax on working people in a state that already has the most regressive tax system in the country,” he said.
Sen. Litzow said he remains concerned about the launch of the HOT lanes this fall. He said he had a recent conversation with state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson to warn that the implementation and tolling can’t be as problem-plagued as the tolling and fines on 520 have been.
“I told her they have such limited credibility, they have to get this right,” he said.