I figured a $10 toll was an outrage. But it turns out the problem with the I-405 toll isn’t that it’s too high. It’s too cheap for the new Seattle.
Sure didn’t see that one coming. It turns out that a $10 highway toll isn’t too rich for Seattle. It’s too cheap.
Now, I am notoriously cheap. I’m the type who will circle the block for 20 minutes to avoid paying two bucks for parking. So this column isn’t about me.
It’s about those of you who swamped the Interstate 405 express toll lanes this past week. So many of you chose to pay one of the higher non-bridge tolls in the nation that even the toll lanes became bogged down with traffic.
Who are you?
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“The only four people I saw in the I-405 toll lanes this morning were Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz,” said a commenter at The Seattle Times website. “I guess that’s who they were intended for.”
This has been the common view ever since the state proposed charging up to $10 for the privilege of diverting into express toll lanes between Bellevue and Lynnwood. At 59 cents per mile, it’s one of the higher per-mile toll rates anywhere.
Only 1 percenters can use these lanes, citizens objected at public hearings last year.
It’s now evident that was completely off base. The great I-405 toll-lane experiment has revealed a Seattle truth — namely, that we’re far richer than we let on to be.
“The issue isn’t that the toll is too high. It’s the opposite — you have too many drivers willing to pay that toll. So it’s too low. Probably far too low.”
You can learn a lot about a city by slapping a toll on a stretch of road and seeing what happens, he says.
The premise behind express toll lanes is that solo drivers can either pay to use them or stay in the general lanes for free. It’s a choice. On I-405, the toll ranges from 75 cents to $10. Software recalculates the toll every five minutes.
The more congested the traffic, the higher the price. The theory is that high prices will keep the express lanes moving fast because only a small fraction of drivers would be willing to pay.
Whoops. On Thursday the toll maxed out for the first time. But so many drivers paid it anyway that then the express lanes bogged down as well.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, Pozdena says. At work is a concept called “value of time” — the amount you’d spend to save an hour. Generally your limit is said to be about half your wage. So if you make $60 an hour (about $120,000 annually), you’ll likely be willing to spend $30 to save an hour of time. That’s about what drivers paid Thursday ($10 to shave 20 minutes off a trip is a value-of-time rate of $30 per hour.)
In the Seattle area, a third of the population makes that kind of money. In Bellevue, 40 percent of the households average $135,000 a year or more. Drivers’ willingness to pay can also skyrocket well beyond their means if they’re late to the airport or to pick up kids from day care, Pozdena said
When the toll plan was first in the works, a consultant estimated the average “value of time” for people in the I-405 corridor was only about $14 per hour. It recommended a top toll of $6. Though the state increased that, Pozdena says all of these figures are far too low for Seattle.
“You’ve got many drivers on that freeway making $120,000 or more, which means they’d pay the $10 toll without much thought,” Pozdena said. “The toll will have to go up or else the lanes will probably break down over time.”
I don’t even know what to say to that. To me, $10 is usurious. I’m that guy who drives around, clogging the I-90 bridge, just to avoid the piddling 520 toll. But if they jacked the I-405 toll to $20, I bet there’d be plenty of people able and willing to pay it.
Seattle is changing in so many ways. And one is that cheap is obviously out.