BOTHELL — Those who drive I-405 since carpool lanes were converted to toll lanes two years ago have grown to appreciate the option, new survey data shows. But few buy in to the idea that tolling eases congestion.
The Washington State Department of Transportation commissioned a survey in May and June of more than 400 drivers who had traveled I-405 in the past year.
Sixty percent of them answered “yes” when asked if they like having the option to use the express toll lanes for a faster trip.
That’s an attitude adjustment from January 2016, three months after the toll lanes opened, when 77 percent of drivers responding to a different survey said they did not support the toll lanes — a different question that had folks put their support on a scale of one to seven.
The ease in angst is a familiar trend, seen in other places where tolling has been around long enough for people to get used to the idea.
Even so, the latest survey reflected lingering skepticism.
Overall, 67 percent of respondents didn’t see express toll lanes as an effective method to reduce traffic congestion, as WSDOT claims. More than six in 10 said they found traffic on I-405 to be the same or worse since tolling began.
And of the reasons drivers gave for choosing the regular lanes over toll lanes, the second-most popular answer (at 40 percent) was “I don’t agree with paying a toll.”
In general, while most folks think WSDOT is a reliable source of traffic information, they’re far less sure about the agency’s reliability as a source on the effectiveness of toll lanes.
“While the surveys showed that many people like having the option to use the express toll lanes, we also heard that there are still lots of people who feel as strongly as ever that they were a bad idea,” said Ethan Bergerson, a WSDOT spokesman. “We recognize that this frustration is out there, and are continuing to listening to public feedback and making continual improvements to the express toll lane system when we have the opportunity.”
The $338 million project converted existing carpool lanes to express lanes that charge varying tolls based on congestion. Significantly, the state also added a lane, for a second toll lane, south of Highway 522.
Traffic flow dramatically improved in the expanded portion of the interstate, while a bottleneck heading northbound into Snohomish County was simply exacerbated.
Toll revenue has since paid to add shoulder driving north of Highway 527 to help deal with the northbound evening slog. That has brought improved travel times and the lower tolls that follow.
Long-term plans call for using toll revenue to also widen the interstate in the northbound section, among other improvements.
But in the meantime, the northbound toll lanes are struggling to move traffic along at the speeds necessary to be considered a success. WSDOT is analyzing its latest traffic data to share with lawmakers, who will be paying close attention to the project’s two-year anniversary.
WSDOT sticks by toll lanes.
Bad traffic isn’t going away, but variable toll lanes give drivers an “out” when they need it, Bergerson said.
“Since the express toll lanes opened the Department of Licensing has transferred 150,000 out-of-state driver licenses to King and Snohomish county addresses — that’s one new driver every 6 minutes,” Bergerson said. “This is a major challenge for our roads and there is no magic wand to make traffic go back to what it was at the turn of the century, but express toll lanes are helping to keep congestion under control.”
Other survey findings:
• Less than half of drivers in the survey had ever driven in the toll lanes. Of those who had, 46 percent were rare users, and 18 percent only drove in the lanes when they were open to all drivers toll-free.
• More people reported carpooling with household members (40 percent) than carpooling with someone else (14 percent).
• Less than 10 percent took a bus or commuted with a vanpool.
• The top two reasons drivers gave for congestion followed basic logic: “too many drivers” followed by “not enough lanes.”
• Of those who paid to use the I-405 express lanes, 54 percent said the cost was “usually” or “always” worth it.
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