Tolls approaching the $10 limit were forecast to be rare occasions for the new Interstate 405 Express Toll Lanes, but this week, they're the new normal.
Tolls approaching the $10 limit were forecast to be rare occasions for the new Interstate 405 Express Toll Lanes, but this week they’re the new normal.
The price reached $9.75 on Tuesday afternoon, and at 5 p.m. a driver could pay $8.25 to get from Bellevue to Lynnwood in 25 minutes — instead of 55 minutes in the general lanes. This follows a $9.25 price on Tuesday morning.
Prices have reached $8 or more on 14 occasions since tolling began Sept. 27. Seven were northbound and seven were southbound.
That’s far above the predicted $4 average.
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“I think we’re surprised to see that people are willing to pay $8 or $9 for a reliable trip,” said Jennifer Charlebois, tolling engineer for the Washington State Department of Transportation. “This really proves how valuable people’s time is.”
But the high rates and unpredictable travel times are angering many drivers.
State Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, has gone so far as to draft a bill seeking to partially repeal I-405 tolls in the 2016 Legislature. Also, an online petition to “Stop 405 Tolls” claimed more than 10,000 supporters late Tuesday. A Lake Stevens commuter says on Twitter she’s paid $200 already in tolls.
“If you’re going in rush-hour traffic, it can be really random whether it’s congested or not congested,” Harmsworth said. “What I’m hearing is, congestion is worse in the general lanes.”
He proposes to reduce tolling from two lanes to one, so that a fourth lane opens for general traffic between Bellevue and Bothell.
Through a surge-pricing algorithm, toll rates automatically increase as congestion worsens, to deter some drivers from entering the express lanes. If it works, payers can still get to work or child care on time using the express lanes.
In past weeks, the system has been slow to react, so a lane priced at 75 cents suddenly fills and clogs, as the price spikes. (Your price won’t rise once you’ve entered the toll lane.)
Charlebois acknowledged that problem and said the WSDOT started adjusting the software in late November. Drivers will see $5 and $6 rates earlier on heavy-traffic days, she said.
Community Transit and King County Metro Transit both report ridership growth due to a faster bus ride, she said, compared with the older carpool lane that would fill, with travel speeds dropping to under 45 mph.
Some drivers resent I-405 widening was funded by gas taxes but that they must pay again to enter the new lanes. Some argue tolls worsen the class divide between richer and poorer citizens. Others point to operational weak points — for instance, there’s no direct access in Bothell, where the two toll lanes shrink to one toll lane heading toward Lynnwood.
Crash risks arise when drivers illegally weave in and out of the express lanes, across the solid white lines.
Tolls began in late September. In the first six weeks, toll-lane users on average saved 14 minutes and paid $3.05 for the southbound morning peak commute, the state reported. Northbound, drivers on average saved 12 minutes and paid $2.35.
Drivers may perceive worse conditions because traffic is volatile, while the times and places of congestion are still changing, Charlebois said. It will take about six months for traffic to settle into a pattern, she said.