OLYMPIA — Those toll lanes on I-405 are turning two this week but whether they are around for a third birthday is going to be up to state lawmakers.
It won’t be an easy decision.
They launched tolling on the interstate as a two-year experiment and said it could become permanent if the lanes pay for themselves and cars move fast enough during the commute.
At this point, the toll lanes aren’t meeting both benchmarks, though it’s close.
“We have some decisions to make and they will not be easy to make,” said state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “Are we going to bless it or are we going to discontinue it and if we discontinue it, what is going to replace it?”
“I have my inclinations and my beliefs. I am saving my final analysis until we get all of our information together,” King said. “I would hope we would start to look at that and try to make the decision early in session and not drag this thing out.”
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is the ranking Democrat on the transportation panel. He too said lawmakers need to see figures for two full years of tolling operations before passing judgment.
“We want to see the data,” he said. “Obviously there are growing pains. There’s always room for tweaks to address the access issues. I think it’s still up in the air as to what the legislative process will be.”
In Rep. Mark Harmsworth’s mind, there’s nothing to decide. If those specific metrics aren’t met — and he argues they are not — state law demands they be terminated as soon as practically possible.
“We don’t have to make the decision,” said the Mill Creek Republican. “The decision is made for us.”
The signing of House Bill 1382 in 2011 by former Gov. Chris Gregoire paved the way for toll collection on a 15-mile stretch of I-405 between Bellevue and just south of the interchange with I-5 in Lynnwood.
The toll lanes, which opened Sept. 27, 2015, must meet two standards. They must generate enough money to cover their operation and maintenance. And traffic in those lanes needs to average at least 45 mph for 90 percent of the time in the peak commute periods.
Otherwise, under state law the “express toll lanes project must be terminated as soon as practicable.”
Tolling got off to a rocky start.
There was frustration with a new requirement that carpools have at least three people to travel free in peak periods. Those in two-person carpools found themselves forced into regular traffic, or into their wallets for tolls.
Drivers struggled to find where to access the lanes and complained about the lack of room to merge in and out of them. Confused drivers would enter and exit the lanes by illegally crossing the double white lines.
And there were accidents, a whole bunch early and far fewer now, as drivers got used to the brave new world of travel on one of the state’s most congested commute routes.
From April through September 2015, which is before the toll lanes opened, there were a total of 362 collisions on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood. That’s both directions combined. In the same period a year later, the number rose to 495, according to information from the state Department of Transportation.
Officials note the majority are not in toll lanes and with more cars on the road, an overall increase in collisions is not surprising.
The state has made a number of changes since that first day. New striping of lanes, new signs, more room to merge and improved direct access to entry points cleared up some confusion.
The addition of shoulder driving on a 1.8-mile stretch of northbound I-405 in Bothell provided noticeable improvements in travel times.
And, one of the most notable moves came in February 2016 with the decision to open the lanes to all vehicles for free at night and on weekends.
“That certainly was a huge reason for the improvement in the public acceptance of tolling,” said Patty Rubstello, assistant secretary of Urban Mobility And Access. She served as director of tolling when the lanes opened.
A matter of metrics
It’s already clear the toll lanes pay for themselves.
They generated $35.6 million through the first 21 months, according to the Department of Transportation. The cost of operation and maintenance in that same period was $13.6 million which means overhead costs are running at around 35 percent so far.
As for the second benchmark, transportation officials say it’s getting close.
In the northbound and southbound stretches with two toll lanes, traffic moves at 45 mph or faster 93 percent of the time. In the single-lane sections it is 72 percent, with most of the drag coming in the morning commute in the southbound direction. Overall the average hovers around 81 percent.
Toll-lane drivers are saving 11 minutes southbound and 14 minutes northbound compared to general purpose traffic, if they travel the entire stretch, according to state numbers.
And vehicles in the general purpose lanes are averaging a slightly better speed in commute periods than they used to, including the single-lane section, according to the transportation department.
“When traffic is at its worst, the express toll lanes are acting as a relief valve for the regular lanes,” DOT spokesman Ethan Bergeson said. “At the height of rush hour, the express toll lanes are carrying more cars per lane than each general purpose lane in most locations, with up to 30 percent more cars flowing through each express toll lane in some places.”
As for cost, they said 71 percent of toll transactions during peak periods were for amounts below $4 while tolls of $8 or more accounted for 11 percent.
“They are performing well,” said Ed Barry, the new director of tolling. “They are providing drivers that option for a faster trip when they really need it.”
David Hablewitz of Bothell, a founder of Stop405tolls, questions the department’s statistical calisthenics.
“Do I buy what they are saying? No,” he said.
While the lanes do generate revenue, overhead costs are eating up profits and leaving drivers with no tangible relief in their travel times.
“In short, the reasons for removing the tolling system are the same today as they were two years ago,” he said. “Toll lanes don’t reduce congestion as they are prescribed to do.”
Behind the wheel
When tolling began, many Snohomish County residents found it challenging to even get to the lanes.
Accessing a designated entry point often required drivers to cross several lanes of thick traffic. New signs, restriping and opening of direct-access ramps reduced the degree of difficulty.
An increasing challenge is simply getting to I-405. Travel on side roads and feeder highways are clogging up with cars whose drivers want to bypass as much highway congestion as possible or simply want to get into toll lanes a little farther downstream to save money.
“Any time you want to start a conversation, you can start talking about 405,” said Melissa Eller, who lives in unincorporated Edmonds.
Eller has commuted to Kirkland the past four years.
Her commute home got 15 minutes longer after tolling started. Shoulder driving has helped her get about five minutes back but it still takes at least an hour — and usually an hour and 15 minutes — to slog home.
She checks Google Maps often to chart the best route which means she’ll travel I-5, I-405 and even back roads through Lake Forest Park and Bothell.
Occasionally she’ll pay a toll to cross Highway 520, which is the most direct route, but she’s never paid a toll on I-405.
“I can’t justify it,” she said. When it’s cheap, traffic is flowing well. “When it’s worth it, it’s $5 or $8 or $10 — and that’s too much. The only people I’ve talked to who really like it are wealthy people. It’s easier for them.”
Andre Golubovich, of Bothell, works for a construction company and travels throughout the region, visiting Bellevue quite often.
“Two years later, our commute has improved a bit due to shoulder opening up north of 522,” he said. “But I still stay away from 405 during rush hour, just work a little longer.”
Cary Granger, of Clearview, on the other hand loved the toll lanes when they opened and loves them still.
She used them when she commuted to her job in Kirkland, and now uses them in her commute to Seattle’s Wallingford area. She also pays tolls to cross the Highway 520 bridge.
“I immediately get into the toll lanes after getting on I-405 from 520, without even looking at the reader board of what the fee is. I just don’t care what it costs, as long as it’s somewhat quicker,” Granger said.
Paying tolls on two highways rather than just shooting up I-5 may seem baffling “but I-5 is so bad that I choose to go this alternate route no matter the cost,” she said. “All in all, I like the toll lanes, and am willing to pay whatever the cost is to use them, as long as it saves me some time in my commute to get home to my family.”
Sen. King knows whatever lawmakers decide regarding tolling on the 15-mile stretch of I-405 carries consequences for the state’s transportation system.
“The decision we make from Bellevue to I-5 in Lynnwood affects the decision we make for I-405 from Bellevue to Renton,” he said.
Though lawmakers have not authorized tolling on the latter stretch, it’s long been presumed on this stretch as the state seeks to connect to the HOT lanes on State Route 167 to create a 40-mile corridor between Lynnwood and Pacific.
If lawmakers do say no more toll lanes, it will cost money for the state Department of Transportation to put the highway back to the way it was before with a single carpool lane, DOT’s Rubstello said. It will cost around $13 million to remove equipment, restripe lanes and re-educate drivers to the change, she said.
The Legislature would need to approve the funding, she said.
“I think it is diabolical for them to do that,” Harmsworth said. “The intention in state law was if they were not meeting the standards after two years, and they are not, then (the agency) was to get started shutting them down.
“What they’re trying to say now is you have to give us money to shut them down,” he said. “I will take the vote to shut them down because they are not working. Certainly when we meet in January we’ll sit down and figure it out.”