The state appears ready to open Interstate 405 toll lanes to general traffic during nights, holidays and weekends, in a partial response to angry motorists.
In a concession to driver outrage, state lawmakers say they’re ready to open the Interstate 405 express toll lanes to general traffic during nights, weekends and holidays — for free.
The reprieve wouldn’t address the worst hours of commuter congestion. Nor would it untangle the Bothell bottleneck where the freeway shrinks from five total lanes to three, continuing north to Lynnwood.
But the changes might take political pressure off the Legislature, especially House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, a longtime defender of I-405 tolling.
“I’ve been brutalized,” she said Wednesday. “I did not do this for me. I did this because we need to show people we are hearing them.”
Some 29,000 motorists have endorsed an online petition to “Stop I-405 Tolls,” complaining their daily trips are as bad or worse than before tolling began Sept. 27. The new lanes allow solo drivers to pay to enter a lane that is supposed to guarantee a 45 mph trip or faster.
Last week, Clibborn refused to hold a vote on a bill by Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, to convert one of the two tolled lanes from Bothell to Bellevue to full-time general-purpose use — which would likely sabotage the whole program.
• The Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday approved a bill by Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, to repeal tolls from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., as well as weekends and holidays. Hill said it could reach a Senate floor vote in a week.
• Clibborn and other Democrats signed a letter Tuesday, calling on state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson to repeal night, weekend and holiday tolls. The letter also says the highway should be re-striped for longer access zones between toll and general lanes to give drivers more room to shift into the toll lanes.
“As far as I know, we don’t need a bill,” Clibborn said.
She said she hopes changes occur within weeks.
To stress accountability, Hill emphasized a phrase in his bill saying the I-405 daytime tolls “are for a two-year pilot period” — to affirm that lawmakers and not the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will judge whether tolls are successful enough to continue.
“My confidence in WSDOT being able to implement anything is very, very low,” he said Wednesday. “To think that under the same management, we’re going to have any change, is highly unlikely.”
At best, the toll-hour changes would avert some slowdowns on weekends, when drivers are more reluctant to escape the clogged general lanes by paying a toll.
State toll officials will consult the Federal Highway Administration and Washington State Transportation Commission, to determine how to change tolling hours.
A WSDOT spokesman said the agency backs the toll changes. “We appreciate the constructive approach in the letter and we support these improvements,” Ethan Bergerson said.
The new tolls have created winners and losers.
• Traffic jams have worsened north of Bothell, according to state data.
Toll rates that vary with traffic flow often reach $9 or $10, fueling complaints that Washington state offers mobility to its nobility and gridlock to its commoners.
David Hablewitz, of Bothell, a leading toll critic, testified in Olympia last week that the tolling system discourages two-person carpools by requiring three people in order to ride free at peak times. Some people dissolve two-person carpools and pay tolls, adding cars to I-405, he said.
• On the favorable side, Community Transit reports a six-minute savings at peak times with a 4 percent ridership gain, while King County Metro Transit finds an eight-minute savings, and ridership gains of 6 percent.
Some drivers are thanking the state for shorter suburban commutes, which the state estimates are 14 minutes briefer for toll payers. WSDOT data show general-lane traffic south into Bellevue moves seven minutes faster.
Meantime, the state is considering opening the right shoulders of the freeway north of Highway 527, also known as the Canyon Park interchange in north Bothell, during the afternoon peak, requiring some construction work.
That prompted needling from Bob Pishue, analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center: “DOT says ‘can’t build our way out of congestion’ to justify #405ETL, then says wider 405 would reduce congestion,” he tweeted.
Overall, drivers make 450,000 trips per weekday within the Lynnwood-to-Bellevue segment of I-405.
Loosening the Bothell bottleneck under a tolled system would require the state to build a second toll lane to Lynnwood, and a Bothell access ramp.
Clibborn on Wednesday criticized the state’s past assurances that a single toll lane each direction would suffice north of Bothell.
“The growth going on there is humongous. I think it was miscalculated. Obviously it was not designed with enough capacity,” Clibborn said.
The price for a full build-out to Lynnwood exceeds $300 million. Lawmakers didn’t fund it in the recent 11.9-cent gas-tax increase, and nobody knows yet how far I-405 toll income might stretch, even at up to $10 a car.