Motorists are flocking to the I-405 express toll lanes, so much so that tolls in the opening months totaled $3.7 million, more than triple what the state had forecast.
The new Interstate 405 express toll lanes are bringing in more than triple the money expected, creating a possible windfall to spend at freeway chokepoints.
“It’s early, but we’re already in the black,” said Patty Rubstello, state tolling director, who released a first-quarter balance sheet during an interview Monday.
Toll payers spent $3.7 million between the Sept. 27 grand opening and the end of the year, compared with a $1 million forecast, in the corridor between Lynnwood and Bellevue.
Traffic volumes reached levels not expected until after two years. “Drivers quickly perceived the value of express toll lanes, and they jumped in earlier than forecast,” Rubstello said.
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On the other hand, the “massive demand,” reflected in tolls that spike to $9 or $10 on occasion, shows the windfall is a misery index, argues Bob Pishue, transportation analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center.
“It reflects the congestion in the general-purpose lanes,” he said. “Is this the best we’re going to get?”
Delays actually worsened on weekends and afternoon commutes going north through Bothell. Southbound trips from Lynnwood to Bellevue for morning commuters shortened by seven minutes in general lanes and 14 minutes for toll payers, the state says.
“Travel times have improved for drivers traveling the entire corridor, and have provided an immediate benefit of a reliable trip for transit,” said a letter by Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) Chair Anne Haley of Walla Walla and deputy transportation secretary Roger Millar.
The new lanes allow solo drivers to buy a speedier trip by paying to enter the bus-carpool lane. Tolls vary, based on congestion, to maintain a 45-mph flow. About 50,000 vehicles per weekday use the special lanes.
About 17 percent of peak-time toll payers spent more than $4, state data show. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) grossed $5.2 million when Good To Go pass sales and other income is included. After costs, net income was $2.7 million.
By law, proceeds must be reinvested in I-405.
A leading option is to retrofit the northbound shoulder from Bothell to Lynnwood so peak-time traffic can use it as a general lane, at a construction cost of $30 million to $50 million, Rubstello said.
Currently there are two toll lanes in each direction between Bellevue and Bothell, but only one each way from Bothell to Lynnwood. To add a second toll lane each way would require up to $570 million if direct-access ramps in Bothell are added.
The I-405 tolls are so controversial that 30,000 motorists endorsed a repeal petition online.
Republican Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and fellow GOP members complained about I-405 congestion and customer-service snafus Friday as one reason they voted to oust Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, appointed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee three years ago.
Hill said Monday that WSDOT mismanaged its forecast by a factor of 3.7, so it should consider giving motorists a refund.
Transportation officials notified the House on Monday that they will work toward removing tolls at night and on weekends and holidays, following pressure from the Legislature.
The WSTC sets toll rates and times, and a decision normally takes three to four months with public hearings, said executive director Reema Griffith.