Drivers tell lawmakers of their frustrations, satisfaction with I-405

OLYMPIA — Drivers frustrated by experiences with the express toll lanes on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue urged lawmakers Thursday to make them work better or get rid of them.

“This is a disgusting, appalling use of taxpayer dollars,” Mike Arntzen, of Bellevue, told the Senate Transportation Committee. “This is like a cancer that needs to be eliminated.”

But other motorists praised the lanes for improving travel on the often-clogged interstate and hoped legislators steer clear of ordering any significant changes.

“I’ve not encountered any problems,” said Duncan Milloy, of Mill Creek. “Paying a modest toll is well worth it to reduce my time on the road.”

Fourteen people testified to the committee on Senate Bill 6152, which would reduce the number of lanes, open them to all vehicles at night for free and erase the double white lines to enable easier access to and from the lanes.

“Right now it is not working and anyone who drives that corridor will tell you that,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, the bill’s sponsor. “I think we need to fix it.”

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, who introduced an identical bill in the House, told senators he had heard “literally thousands and thousands of complaints” about the lanes since they opened on the 17-mile stretch.

He called it a “failed experiment” and said the bills offer “a moderated approach” to improve travel for drivers.

The express toll lanes opened to traffic Sept. 27. Under existing law, they are allowed to operate for two years before lawmakers could consider axing them.

Today, there are two toll lanes in each direction from NE 6th Street in Bellevue to just south of SR 522 in Bothell, and a single lane in each direction from SR 522 to Lynnwood.

They are separated from regular traffic by those double white lines, which are illegal to cross. Access to the toll lanes is limited to direct-access ramps and to designated entry and exit points marked by dashed white lines.

SB 6152 would allow only one express toll lane in each direction. That would mean the second toll lane now between Bellevue and Bothell would become a general purpose lane.

The bill also would open toll lanes in both directions to any driver at no cost between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. daily, and on state holidays. And the double white lines would be removed except in places where it might present a safety problem.

And under Hill’s bill, the toll lanes would be terminated in two years if average speeds of 45 miles per hour are not occurring 90 percent of the time in peak travel periods.

Since opening, the Department of Transportation has confronted several challenges with the lanes. Traffic is backing up in places where it didn’t before because of the design. Tolls hit the maximum $10 on six occasions in the first three months, which no one expected. And there have been foul-ups in collection of tolls resulting in refunds to thousands of drivers.

Transportation officials also note that more than 1 million drivers are using the toll lanes each month. And, on average, they are saving 14 minutes in their trips, according to DOT figures.

At Thursday’s hearing, opponents complained of those high tolls, increased congestion and great difficulty getting in and out of the lanes.

Representatives of the Washington Trucking Association said drivers estimate their trips along that stretch of I-405 are taking 30 minutes longer. A lobbyist for the statewide motorcycling association talked of the excruciating experiences members experience in being allowed to drive for free in the lanes.

“Anyone claiming the 405 toll lanes are working is peddling fiction,” said David Hablewitz, of Bothell, a founder of Stop405Tolls.org, which has collected 28,000 signatures on petitions to eliminate the lanes altogether.

But providers and supporters of transit services lauded the lanes for enabling bus riders to reach their destinations with greater speed and reliability.

“There have been hiccups along the way,” said Bryce Yadon, state policy director for Futurewise. “They are doing what they are intended to do.”

Michael Zachary, a Mill Creek resident and member of Snohomish County Committee for Improved Transportation, said toll lanes provide him with better certainty when he gets on the road.

“Paying 75 cents to $5 is worth my peace of mind,” he said.

Afterward, Hablewitz said the message is getting heard in Olympia. He cited transportation officials’ acknowledgement they are making adjustments based on drivers’ concerns.

“This is a first step. We’ve got them listening,” he said. “We’ve got the attention of the Department of Transportation. We’ve got the attention of leaders to take action.”

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

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