Tolls on the new Interstate 405 express lanes hit $10 on Thursday, and traffic was still bogged down. Relentless congestion raises questions about whether the new Lynnwood-Bellevue toll corridor is properly designed, and whether demand exceeds state planning.
For the first time, tolls in the new Interstate 405 express lanes hit their legal limit of $10 per trip Thursday morning.
Even at that milestone, drivers who paid to escape gridlock ended up wading through stretches of stop-and-go traffic.
This week’s relentless congestion raises questions about whether the new corridor from Lynnwood to Bellevue is properly designed, as well as whether the public demand for a quicker commute far exceeds what the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) had planned.
The $10 rate showed up around 7 a.m., meaning that the toll lane filled up beyond the state’s capacity to offer a 45 mph ride. Prices rise as speeds in the toll lanes decline, to deter too many drivers from clogging the toll lanes.
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“Even during the time when it was $10, drivers have saved 16 to 24 minutes,” toll-division spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. That’s less than the 30-minute savings that WSDOT reported earlier this week, when tolls hovered around $8 to $9.
Meanwhile, an online petition called “Stop 405 Tolls” recorded 19,400 supporters, and state Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, continued to criticize the program on social media and in interviews.
Harmsworth says he will file legislation to convert a toll lane in each direction to general use from Bellevue to Bothell, leaving only one carpool-toll lane each way.
Slowdowns in the general traffic lanes have become worse, he said.
And since public gas-tax dollars paid for the new lanes, people who are stuck in the regular lanes are subsidizing drivers who can afford to pay the tolls, Harmsworth and other detractors say.
A commuter tweeted a photo of his speedometer at 18 mph in the toll lane Thursday, and said he came to a stop at Bothell, where the two-lane toll corridor shrinks to one toll lane.
House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, acknowledges the pinch point in Bothell, and said nobody in leadership expected such high rates so soon. WSDOT was figuring that a typical busy day would bring $4 tolls.
Still, she said there’s no need to overreact.
“This is really new. We don’t really know what it’s going to look like in seven months,” Clibborn said, of the $484 million project.
The bottleneck exists in part because Bothell lacks a direct-access ramp to the toll lanes, and because two toll lanes merge into one from Bothell to Lynnwood. Totem Lake and downtown Bellevue have median ramps into the toll lanes, where WSDOT simply adapted existing bus-carpool exits. Building direct ramps in Bothell would require tens of millions of dollars.
Vehicles with three or more people can legally travel free at peak, by setting a state-issued Flex Pass to “HOV” mode to claim high-occupancy-vehicle status.
In addition, buses are moving faster and attracting more riders than before, when the sole high-occupancy lane was congested, government agencies say.
The state has received messages of support from people who saved time, Bergerson said.
Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson has on many occasions said the toll lanes aren’t just for wealthy people, because lower-income workers can use them in a crunch to reach jobs on time or pick up children before deadlines at a day-care center.
Peterson also told KTTH radio, in an interview posted on KIRO Radio: “I am also getting stories about people — literally, one person was ready to commit suicide because of their life and how it was being impacted by I-405, and literally wrote and said, ‘you’ve saved my life.’ ”
Tolls didn’t hit $9 until Nov. 24, some eight weeks after startup, said Bergerson. This indicates people have gradually become more willing to choose toll lanes.
“Given this trend, it’s not surprising we reached the maximum toll rate and we anticipate drivers may regularly see higher toll rates during peak periods, as people are willing to pay more to have a faster trip,” he said in a message Thursday.
“It’s going to get bad enough that people who can afford to pay will pay. It’s unfair as hell; I think it’s kind of a social-justice issue,” said Royer, a former Seattle mayor who lives downtown.
On the other hand, if tolls were removed, those lanes would eventually clog, he said.
Atlanta has seen express-lane tolls reach $11, the Journal-Constitution reported this spring.
Clibborn recalled that years ago, officials talked about a higher ceiling but settled on $10 to match the top rate on Highway 167 through Kent.
Harmsworth would oppose raising the top price, saying it would help WSDOT meet its legal requirements by serving fewer people. By law, the state must keep toll-lane speeds at least 45 mph, and break even on operating costs.
Might high tolls bring a windfall?
WSDOT expected to spend the majority of all toll income on operations.
More specifically, a fiscal study says about $7.6 million would be collected the first full year, and $6.4 million would go to operating costs (including $3.1 million to Texas-based Electronic Transaction Consultants) — leaving $1.2 million net income.
But the analysts calculated tolls of only $1.16, averaged over the whole day. If the rates soar far higher, that ought to provide a little windfall.
A logical place to spend it, said Clibborn, would be to unclog the Bothell-Lynnwood part of I-405.
Information in this article, originally published Dec. 10, 2015, was corrected Dec. 11, 2015. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect title for Charles Royer. Also the story said Lynn Peterson has been interviewed by KIRO. The interview was with KTTH and posted on KIRO Radio’s website.