Toll-lane signs on southbound I-405 in Bothell.

Toll-lane signs on southbound I-405 in Bothell.

Commission lifts I-405 tolls during off-peak hours, holidays

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, March 15, 2016 3:41pm
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — Starting Friday, drivers won’t have to pay to use the I-405 express toll lanes on weeknights, weekends and a handful of holidays.

State transportation officials plan to turn off tolling in both directions of the 17-mile stretch between Bellevue and Lynnwood at 7 p.m. Friday and won’t begin collecting tolls again until the Monday morning commute.

Going forward, the express toll lanes only will operate on weekdays between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. under changes approved by the state Transportation Commission on Tuesday.

Travel also will be free throughout weekends and on six holidays: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Overhead signs will read “open to all” at those times. A Good To Go! Pass will not be required to access the express toll lanes for free, nor will requirements for a carpool be in effect, transportation officials said.

However, even when the lanes are free it still will be illegal to cross the double white lines to get in and out of them, officials said. Drivers will need to continue to use designated access points.

The state will lose an estimated $2.68 million in tolls the next year, as a result of the change, Assistant Secretary of Transportation Patty Rubstello told commissioners.

Tuesday’s action comes less than six months after the state began charging drivers to use the lanes.

State lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee called for lifting the tolls as a goodwill gesture to drivers frustrated by what they’ve encountered since the lanes opened in September.

“They did everything we asked,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, “We are all working toward making the toll lanes work better for everyone.”

But this won’t be the last action taken regarding the controversial lanes.

“It’s a good first step but it’s not enough,” said state Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, who has pushed for changes like this since last year. “It doesn’t deal with the root issue, which is the congestion during rush hour traffic,” he wrote in a text.

Department of Transportation figures show that some drivers and bus riders are enjoying faster trips, but the northbound afternoon commute through Bothell is suffering greater congestion than before the lanes opened in September.

In addition, there have been foul-ups in toll collection, requiring refunds to thousands of drivers.

Clibborn rejected the notion this move means the lanes are a bust.

“Almost every place where they’ve done this kind of tolling within the first six months either the governor or the Legislature came in and tweaked it,” she said. “Now they’re so popular they are actually expanding. So I don’t see this as a failure.”

Commissioners agreed last month to rewrite the rules. They held off from ordering the switch immediately to allow transportation officials time to provide them recommendations on how best to proceed.

What commissioners approved Tuesday is an emergency rule. The commission is making the changes permanent through a formal rulemaking process that will last several months. When completed, the emergency rule will expire.

Tuesday’s decision comes as lawmakers and the governor pursue other moves to improve the flow of traffic and the experience of those traveling that stretch of I-405.

Lawmakers approved a supplemental transportation budget containing $250,000 for a study to identify projects to reduce congestion and add capacity on the stretch of I-405 between Highway 522 in Bothell and I-5. The budget also earmarks $15 million for an auxiliary lane on I-405 from Highway 520 to Northeast 70th Place in Kirkland and $30 million to convert the right shoulder into a lane between Highway 527 and the exit-only lane onto I-5 in Lynnwood. Money for both projects becomes available in the 2017-19 biennium.

Inslee, who is expected to sign the supplemental transportation budget, has publicly endorsed those projects as well as the study.

There’s also language in the supplemental budget directing the Department of Transportation to continue working to expand the length of the access and exit points to the express toll lanes and to clarify signs and striping to eliminate confusion for drivers.

And lawmakers want the department to provide them a report every three months with detail about traffic flow on the entire stretch of tolling lanes.

The quarterly reports must include:

Information on the travel times during peak and non-peak periods in the express toll lanes and general purpose lanes for the corridor. They also want a breakdown down by segment in each direction.

A month-to-month comparison of travel times for the entire corridor, dating back to the first day of tolling. And, to the extent possible, data on how long it took to travel those 17 miles before the express toll lanes opened.

Information on the number of vehicles using the toll lanes and the regular lanes since tolling began. Lawmakers want numbers for each lane on I-405 before and after tolling began.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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