First weekday of I-405 tolls: Great in toll lanes, a nightmare elsewhere

Local drivers chalked up both their best and worst commutes ever on I-405 on Monday, the first weekday of tolling.

“Today was amazing for the carpoolers and terrible for the normals,” said Ryan Bowering of Lynnwood.

Bowering cruised to work in Redmond by using the new express toll lanes, which replaced traditional carpool lanes from Lynnwood to Bellevue. Bowering traveled toll-free thanks to his participation in a vanpool.

“It was our fastest ride to work in a year — the only time we’ve never touched the brakes once the whole way,” Bowering said. “But it was obvious that the commuter lanes were very under-utilized.”

The state’s predictions for a rough commute in the general purpose lanes on the first weekday of tolling on I-405 proved true, with congestion compounded by a crash near Highway 522 during the morning rush.

Express toll lanes were relatively empty. Anyone can use the lanes for the cost of the posted toll (with an added $2 if they don’t have a Good To Go account, among other caveats).

Those who did use the toll lanes saved up to 50 minutes compared to drivers in the sea of brake lights to the right.

At 7:30 a.m. traffic conditions put the travel time from Lynnwood to Bellevue at 70 minutes in the general purpose lanes, compared to 20 minutes in the express toll lanes.

Tolls hopped between 75 cents and $2.50 during the morning commute. The average was $1.50.

Not everyone who used the toll lanes had a seamless experience, however.

Just getting to the lanes proved to be a problem for many Snohomish County commuters, particularly those coming from Highway 522, who described the nearest toll entry as very difficult to get to across so many lanes of thick traffic.

The express toll lanes are separated from regular traffic by 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.

Karen Swift’s commute from Snohomish to Bellevue normally takes 45 minutes. On Monday, it was almost twice that.

Even with leaving the house at 6 a.m., it took an hour and 10 minutes for Swift to finally reach a toll lane entrance. Traffic was backed up all the way up Highway 9 into Snohomish.

“I hopped in as soon as I could, and the HOV lanes were wide open, so I breezed to work in about another 15 minutes,” she said.

It was the worst commute she’s had in her nearly two years driving the route.

Swift used to carpool but lost that arrangement in the switch to tolling. On Monday, she used her Flex Pass on “toll” mode as a solo driver to use the far left lanes.

“I am hoping people get more accustomed to the new lanes by next week and the flow will be better,” she said.

Tony Czaban of Stanwood finally grew tired enough of the backup to try and merge into the toll lane Monday morning. “But I did not do so at the right time and hit double whites, so I just got off and drove through Bothell instead,” he said.

“I am very curious to see if this was a blip or if this is the new reality,” he said.

If things don’t improve, state Rep. Mark Harmsworth says he’ll seek to suspend tolls. The Mill Creek Republican — who is a member of the House Transportation Committee and earlier this year tried unsuccessfully to block the carpool occupancy change — tracked the morning commute via the state’s traffic cameras.

“I felt like the state should be turning it up slowly rather than turning it up all the way on the first day,” Harmsworth said.

WSDOT leaders say delays were expected and part of a normal ramp-up.

Overall, traffic times in the corridor were close to average, with toll lane drivers saving about 30 minutes in the morning, according to WSDOT figures. The evening commute was similar. At 5:30 p.m., Bellevue-to-Lynnwood travel times were running 45 minutes in the general purpose lanes compared to the 39-minute average, and 15 minutes in the toll lanes.

“This is a big change for drivers, and we expected that the first commute would be slower than usual,” WSDOT Assistant Secretary Craig Stone said. “Over time, drivers will get comfortable with this system, and the highway will begin to operate more efficiently in both the express toll lanes and the regular lanes.”

Meanwhile, Washington State Patrol troopers were looking for drivers violating the rules. Those who cross double white lines or who try to cheat the lane’s toll-free carpool perk with fewer than three people at peak hours risk a $136 ticket.

Early indications show approximately 55 percent of vehicles in the express toll lanes had a Good To Go pass, according to WSDOT.

Pay-by-mail travelers should expect to see a bill arrive in the mail in about two weeks, showing the toll at the time of entry plus a $2 fee.

For those with Good To Go accounts, express toll lane trip information is not expected to appear in the system for several days. Drivers with a Flex Pass in HOV mode will not see any trip information on their account.

Some drivers reported not being able to get Flex Passes, which sold out at some retail locations. The passes are required for carpools to drive toll-free.

The fastest way to buy a Flex Pass is through select QFC, Fred Meyer or Walgreens stores (see www.wsdot.wa.gov/GoodToGo/retail.htm for a list). But customers should call ahead to confirm inventory. The passes also must be linked to an active Good To Go account in order to work.

The Good To Go customer service phone line (866-936-8246) and walk-in customer service centers have been experiencing long wait times. There also is a website, at mygoodtogo.com.

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

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