Elimination of I-405 toll lanes is up for discussion again

A state senator’s bill would convert them to carpool lanes. He hopes to at least start a conversation.

Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on I-405 in 2016 in the Bothell area. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on I-405 in 2016 in the Bothell area. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

OLYMPIA — A south Snohomish County lawmaker is taking another run at eliminating I-405 toll lanes between Lynnwood and Bellevue.

State Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, has drawn up legislation to convert them to carpool lanes, remove the toll collection equipment and use any remaining receipts to carry out a pair of congestion relief projects in Bothell.

He knows it’s a long shot. He was involved in previous, unsuccessful legislative attempts to get rid of the toll lanes. But he is hopeful that a bill he has pre-filed for the upcoming legislative session will spark a conversation about needed transportation improvements and how to pay for them.

The toll lanes stretch 15 miles.

“My constituents in 2016 asked me to try to repeal them,” Palumbo said. “My stance on tolling has always been that if they are going to stay, then that money needs to come to the north end to fund the $450 million we need to fix the highway north of Highway 522. This starts a discussion to see if we can do it without tolls.”

He’ll get a chance to make his case to the Senate Transportation Committee in the 2019 session that begins next month.

“I will give the bill a hearing because I try to give every bill a hearing,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the transportation panel. “I don’t see them going away.”

The I-405 express toll lanes opened to traffic Sept. 27, 2015. There are two toll lanes in each direction from Northeast Sixth Street in Bellevue to just south of Highway 522 in Bothell, and a single toll lane in each direction between the 522 interchange and Lynnwood.

Commuters are using them. The number of vehicles traveling in the express toll lanes continues to rise, according to the most recent update provided to lawmakers by the state Department of Transportation.

Toll lane drivers save an average of 12 minutes if they travel the entire length from Lynnwood to Bellevue, according to the report. Bus riders are saving up to 11 minutes in daily travel time for some routes since the toll lanes opened.

But from the outset, the toll lanes have had their detractors. Some critics are dead set against tolling. Others note the project continues to fall short of a key benchmark on vehicle speeds in the toll lanes, primarily because of a persisting bottleneck in the northbound direction in the Bothell area.

Concerns that toll lanes would not pay for themselves have not been realized.

Toll charges average $3.82 at peak times, and gross revenue reached $66.5 million between opening day and June 30, the report says. Of the total, $11.5 million has been spent on projects in the corridor with another $15 million earmarked by lawmakers for dealing with the chokepoint in the north end.

Under Senate Bill 5018, which Palumbo submitted Dec. 10, one toll lane in each direction between Lynnwood and Northeast Sixth Street in Bellevue would be open only to carpools with three or more people. The other I-405 lane, which runs roughly between Northeast 160th Street in Bothell and downtown Bellevue, would be open to two-person carpools.

If the bill becomes law, unused toll collections would be spent to remove the tolling equipment. Any leftover money would go to build a parking garage on what is now the park-and-ride lot in Canyon Park and a new carpool lane connector ramp to the interstate.

In 2017, bills to eliminate the toll lanes were introduced in the House and Senate but never received a vote.

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, who authored the House bill, suggested Palumbo’s bill as written might make traffic worse for some drivers.

“The fact that he’s not returning the second lane to a general purpose lane means congestion will get worse on the south end,” he said.

Harmsworth, who lost his re-election bid in November, said he might testify at the bill’s hearing.

“I’m not giving up on this. This is important for the community,” he said of getting rid of the toll lanes. “I still believe we can come up with a solution to reduce congestion without tolls.”

The 2019 legislative session begins Jan. 14 and is scheduled to last 105 days.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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