For the half-million daily drivers on Interstate 405, here is the help you need to understand toll prices, lane markings and the equipment to order for your car as toll express lanes arrive Sept. 27.
Washington state’s new express toll lanes will change the daily routine, starting Sept. 27, for the nearly half-million drivers who use I-405.
Confusion is likely to prevail as drivers get used to tolls that change as often as every five minutes, depending on congestion. Length of the trip also figures in.
Along a 17-mile stretch from Lynnwood to Bellevue, solo drivers can escape traffic jams in the general lanes by paying a toll to merge into the less-busy toll lanes.
Drivers can obtain electronic toll passes:
• Online through GoodtoGo.com.
• In person from customer-service centers in Bellevue at 13107 N.E. 20th St., Suites 3 and 4; in Seattle’s University District at 4554 Ninth Ave. N.E., Suite 100; or Gig Harbor at 3212 50th St. Court N.W., Suite 200. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. However, the Bellevue center will have extended hours, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, through Oct. 23. Saturday, Sept. 26 and Sunday, Sept. 27 the center will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• By phone, 866-936-8246, with extended hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Sept. 21 through Oct. 23. There may be delays because of the last-minute rush to order passes.
• At participating Fred Meyer, QFC and Walgreens stores. Customers would still need to create and fund an account directly with WSDOT.
• By postal mail, by following instructions and printing forms off the Good to Go website.
• People who carpool on I-405 can qualify for a free FlexPass through rideshareonline.com.
• Motorcyclists can apply online for a free pass, to travel toll-free, at www.wsdot.wa.gov/Tolling/405/freepass.htm#Motorcycle
With three people in your car and a new-style windshield pass, you can get into the toll lanes for free at any time, even during rush hours. Three go free. With two in the car, and the new pass, express lanes are free at any time except rush hours.
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I-405 has no toll booths, so tolls will be deducted electronically. Drivers without a vehicle-mounted toll pass will get a bill in the mail.
There’s a lot to learn, and state officials hope to prevent the opening day frustrations that gripped Atlanta in 2011, when the toll lanes were empty and the general lanes packed, leading the governor to order the $5.40 toll lowered. Craig Stone, assistant secretary for tolling for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), said the initial prices on I-405 may be quite low, to encourage people to give tolls a try.
Here are answers to help you adjust to the big change and avoid sudden lane changes, bills and surcharges:
Q: How do express toll lanes work?
A: Solo drivers may enter the left-side lanes, and escape the clogged general lanes, for whatever price is posted on overhead signs. The more congested the freeway is overall, the higher the toll to enter the express lanes.
The state’s goal is a 45 mph flow in the express toll lanes. Drivers must weigh the value of time they might save.
Q: What’s new on the road?
A: One new express toll lane was paved in each direction from Bothell to Bellevue, while the old carpool-transit lanes from Lynnwood to Bellevue are being converted to express toll lanes — so there will be two toll lanes each direction for the Bothell-Bellevue segment. There will be one toll lane each way from Lynnwood to Bothell.
Q: How much will it cost to drive?
A: Tolls will range from 75 cents to $10 per trip, under an algorithm expected to set typical rates close to $4 during the busiest hour of a normal weekday.
A commuter leaving downtown Bellevue might pay $2 to reach Totem Lake in Kirkland, $3 to reach Bothell, $4 to reach I-5 at Lynnwood. In recent tests, the toll price for the full 17-mile corridor rose from 75 cents to $1.25 as speeds dropped to 50 mph, and hit $2.50 near 45 mph, when early morning commuters showed up in the carpool lane (which will become an express lane).
Cars lacking a toll pass, regardless of how many people are inside, will have their license plates photographed and get a bill in the mail for the trip, plus a $2 per-trip surcharge. Another option is to register your license-plate number with the state, so it’s linked to a toll-debit account. These drivers pay a surcharge of 25 cents per trip.
Q: How will I know the toll price? Can I find out before I turn onto the freeway?
A: The toll price will appear on signs over the freeway, before the entry points to the toll lanes. Toll prices also will be posted above some streets in downtown Bellevue and Totem Lake, where drivers enter using direct, median onramps.
Q: What if the toll changes during my drive?
A:The price displayed when you enter the toll lanes is what you will pay.
Q: Do carpools travel free?
A: With at least three people in a car, toll lanes are always free, even during the 5 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. weekday peak hours. A two-person carpool may enter for free only during off-peak hours. But to claim that free, carpool status, vehicles must have a new FlexPass in the windshield.
Q: Why mess with two-person carpools?
A: The state’s toll-pricing consultants projected in 2013 that allowing free two-person carpools at peak would crowd the toll lanes, and thwart efforts to modulate traffic speeds by using variable prices. (Keep in mind there will still be only a single express toll lane each way from Lynnwood to Bothell, and they’ve been slow with two-person carpools.)
Q: What about motorcycles?
A: Motorcyclists may use I-405 toll lanes for free, but need a motorcycle-style Good to Go pass, to signal the toll cameras to skip them. Otherwise, they will get a toll bill including $2 surcharges in the mail. Tolls are charged to motorcyclists on the 520 and Tacoma Narrows bridges, though.
Q: Will I-405 tolls work like the Highway 167 HOT lanes in Kent?
A: There are differences. Highway 167 always lets two-person carpools enter HOT (high-occupancy or toll) lanes for free. And there’s no camera tolling on 167, where state troopers issue citations to solo drivers who lack a windshield Good to Go pass.
Q: Why do this?
A: Commute times during peak hours are unpredictable, averaging 45 minutes and occasionally exceeding 70 minutes, for the 17 miles. Speeds often sink below 45 mph, crippling bus transit.
The new I-405 layout should assure quicker trips for buses and carpools, while giving solo drivers an option to reach urgent appointments quickly — for a price.
“The whole system is set up to make 405 as a whole more reliable,” Stone said.
Detractors call them Lexus lanes, favoring affluent people who can afford tolls. That’s especially sensitive in Washington, which has been ranked as having the nation’s most regressive tax structure.
Stone acknowledges higher-income people use them more, but said, “Even the lower-income groups, they want to be able to do that — ‘If I don’t get to my job site on time, I don’t get to work.’ ’’
Q: How do I enter?
A: There are seven marked, legal access points northbound, eight southbound.
These include the T-shaped median interchanges in downtown Bellevue and at Totem Lake, as well as dotted-line lane markings on I-405 itself.
Otherwise, the toll and general-traffic lanes are separated by a double white line. The penalty for crossing in the wrong place is $136, enforced by state troopers.
Q: Will my old Good to Go pass work?
A: Yes. Drivers can pay the posted price to enter the toll lanes using a normal Good to Go transponder, usually a green, bandage-sized sticker in the windshield. But they can’t use it to claim free carpool status. Free trips require a special FlexPass.
Q: Why do I need a FlexPass to carpool?
A: The new FlexPasses contain transponders that communicate with toll equipment. They send a signal that nullifies the overhead cameras, so they don’t take a photo of the license plate, and you don’t get a bill by mail.
This pass, the size of a candy bar, can be flipped to white “TOLL” mode to pay, or to red “HOV” mode for free carpool travel.
The older, two-mode carpool passes WSDOT issued for Highway 167 won’t work on I-405. People who have those can upgrade to a free FlexPass, good on all WSDOT tollways, for free. Otherwise, the new FlexPass costs $15.
To activate the FlexPass, users must have or create a toll-debit account with the state. (See information box accompanying this story to learn how.)
Carpools are charged a toll on the Highway 520 and Narrows toll bridges.
Q: Will my tinted windshield block the pass?
A: About 1 percent of vehicles have metallic windows that will block the toll passes, in which case their license plates will be photographed for toll bills. A few car models include clear areas on which to stick electronic passes.
WSDOT doesn’t have a solution. For now, if a windshield-mounted FlexPass doesn’t work, drivers may call customer service to declare afterward that they were carpooling and deserve a free trip. The state is looking at other ideas, like a phone app to let drivers claim carpool status.
Solo drivers who have metallic windshields can simply obtain a license-plate mounted type of Good to Go pass, then use the toll lanes at their normal price.
Q: What if I drive I-405 toll lanes without a pass?
A: The state’s toll contractors will photograph your license plate, search a multistate database, and send a bill by mail — with a $2 surcharge, similar to how business is done for the Highway 520 toll bridge. British Columbia drivers aren’t tolled because the province and state lack a mutual-charging agreement.
People who don’t pay toll bills within 80 days are exposed to a $40 civil penalty per trip, though WSDOT now offers a second-chance program to help people get those waived.
That’s fortunate, because drivers and the toll division are bound to make mistakes in the early going.