Weary drivers using toll lanes say they have little choice

Congestion continues to be a tedious reality for commuters on I-405, which is as clogged as ever.

Exhausted.

That may be the best word to sum up what I-405 drivers are feeling two years after the state opened tolled express lanes between Lynnwood and Bellevue.

Lawmakers face a key decision on whether to extend the pilot project, as my colleague Jerry Cornfield wrote Sunday in The Daily Herald.

Drivers I talked to have different opinions on what that decision should be. Yet they all agreed on some other points.

They don’t appreciate the lopsided effect of the project on Snohomish County.

They do appreciate a new shoulder lane that eases that bottleneck.

And for all of them, congestion has become a weary reality they feel they ultimately can’t escape — even if they do pay a toll.

I-405 is just one crowded piece in a bumper-to-bumper commute. Other clogged portions include I-5 between Everett and Marysville. The U.S. 2 westbound trestle. What feels like all of Highway 9 at this point.

“I used to commute five miles to Kimberly-Clark in Everett for 25 years,” said John Totten, of Marysville.

The plant closed. Totten feels fortunate to have found a good job, but it takes him to Redmond and Kirkland, where housing prices are beyond his reach. And taking buses would take as long as riding a bicycle.

“So basically the folks forced into longer commutes because they cannot afford to live near where they work are out of luck,” Totten said.

Melissa Eller, of Edmonds, shares the sentiment.

The Ellers finally tried to sell their house last year because of the strain of their commutes on family life. They ended up staying. There was nowhere they could afford that would substantially improve their commutes.

“I’ve known two families who have moved here in the last two years and then moved because of congestion. ‘We just can’t move around,’” she recalled. “If we want to keep our economic growth, then we’ve got to address congestion.”

Karen Swift, of Snohomish, adjusted her work schedule to hit the toll lanes when rates are low. Still, she’s forking over about $40 to $50 each month.

“The traffic seems to be worse every day. The traffic in the toll lanes isn’t the issue, it’s getting to them,” she said.

Highway 9 is particularly challenging.

“It can take me up to an hour just to go the 10 miles where previously it took me around half an hour,” said Swift, who commutes to Bellevue.

Swift went from a 35-minute commute with a free two-person carpool before tolling to a daily slog that takes up to 90 minutes each direction.

She would like to see one of the toll lanes converted back to a traditional carpool lane.

Donovan Beck, of Lynnwood, isn’t convinced that will help either.

“The highway is inadequate to afford the luxury of an HOV lane,” Beck said.

Tolling should at least be removed from the single-lane section until the interstate can be similarly widened, with direct-access exits added as well, agreed Lee Van Doren, of Lynnwood.

“I have taken advantage of the toll lanes many times to speed my trip, and I appreciate the opportunity; however, I do not think it is in the best interest of everyone,” Van Doren said.

“There are many times that I observe the three general lanes backed up solid while the two HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes are moving at full speed with plenty of additional capacity,” he said.

Tolling’s high overhead costs also don’t sit well.

Andre Golubovich, of Bothell, works for a construction company and travels I-405 often. Golubovich supports tolling in theory, but would like to see the high costs brought down.

“I will gladly pay $10 per trip, but only if that ties into a larger plan to use all profits — not sending them out of state — to improve overall quality of traffic in the region,” he said.

In a comment to the Washington State Transportation Commission last year, Beck, the Lynnwood driver, wrote: “The toll lanes are an ineffective solution to the wrong problem and are only adding to already stressed-out commuters who have little other choice. “

He still feels that way.

When congestion rose after tolling, Beck shifted his schedule at his Bellevue job to 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Even with the early start, he still pays about $30 to $70 per month on toll bills to make it on time.

Lost communication at work and lost sleep are other trade-offs.

“I know, First World problems, right?” Beck said. “But that commute is the reason. Planning your life around a highway because there is no other alternative.”

Street Smarts: streetsmarts@heraldnet.com, 425-339-3432.

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