Group collecting signatures in effort to end I-405 tolling

BOTHELL — David Hablewitz stepped out in the rain onto the Beardslee Boulevard overpass, reached over its edge, and hung a large banner aimed at the lines of mostly bumper-to-bumper traffic below on I-405.

The message was as simple as the big black letters on a white background: “stop405tolls.org.”

It was the “captive audience” that Hablewitz, was going for, as still other vehicles in the express toll lane sailed past the congestion during the morning commute Thursday.

Since tolling began on a 17-mile stretch of I-405 from Lynnwood to Bellevue on Sept. 27, the northbound afternoon commute through Bothell has taken longer, and north-end commuters report it takes longer to get to their jobs going southbound in the morning, too. Weekends see more congestion than usual, as well, and collisions are up as drivers get used to new lanes and the methods of getting in and out of them.

“Everyone’s complaining. It’s like the weather,” said Hablewitz, of Bothell. “It’s easy to sit here and complain about it. But that doesn’t get it done.”

Hablewitz and a core group of four others — most of whom live in Snohomish County — have taken their angst over tolling to social media and to the emails and voice mails of their local lawmakers.

They hope to gather 1,000 signatures in an online petition. They had topped 300 by Friday. In the end, the want to keep I-405 “a freeway” and not “a feeway.”

Local lawmakers Mark Harmsworth, a Republican, and Luis Moscoso, a Democrat, have shared their concerns about the new congestion points with state transportation officials. Harmsworth plans to push for legislation in the new year that would suspend tolling on I-405.

“It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum … everybody is affected,” said Cynthia Ulrich of Everett who is part of the anti-tolling group.

Ulrich said if Harmsworth’s bill doesn’t get traction, she and her colleagues will push for a ballot initiative.

The public relations professional works in Woodinville and now avoids I-405. “We are packed in here like sardines in a can,” she said.

The local backlash comes at a time when tolling is both increasing in popularity with cash-strapped states and hitting public-opinion roadblocks nationwide.

There has been similar public pushback in states with a longer history of tolling, including Florida and Texas.

More broadly, the latest federal highway bill makes it harder for states to toll general purpose lanes. Three states already have exemptions to do so for a pilot project, though none of them have yet expanded tolling so broadly.

In Washington, the Highway 520 and Tacoma Narrows bridges also are tolled, as are former carpool lanes on Highway 167 south of Renton. Toll lanes are to be expanded down I-405 to connect with Highway 167’s toll lanes. There also are studies for tolling the I-90 bridge to fund a replacement. Long-range studies also have looked at converting carpool lanes on I-5 to toll lanes.

Planning for the I-405 toll lanes reaches back 10 years and included public input, said Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman for WSDOT’s tolling division.

“We need to let this process go forward,” Bergerson said. “We’re off to a promising start, but we know this takes time to ramp up. … It is a very complicated system. There have been lots of changes.”

As it is, the tolling project has a built-in way to be scuttled.

By the two-year mark, the I-405 toll lanes need to show they keep toll lane speeds at 45 mph 90 percent of time as well as operate in the black, Bergerson said. “If we were not meeting those objectives, those requirements, then there’s a process in place that the project would be removed.”

WSDOT has said that it will take six months to a year to adjust. Tolling is entering its 10th week on I-405.

Opponents remain skeptical.

“Really what that’s saying is that if you wait long enough, people will accept it as the new norm … ‘Well, that’s just the way it is,’ ” Hablewitz said.

Hablewitz used to travel the former carpool lane with his daughter to take her Issaquah High School. He now has a Good To Go account and Flex Pass and regularly travels the express toll lanes to be sure she gets to school on time without having to wake too early. In the morning, that means he pays the toll, being one short of the three-person toll-free carpool requirement for peak hours.

The morning he hung the banner, Hablewitz noted that the vast majority of cars traveling in the express toll lane appeared to be single drivers.

It was an unscientific observation, he concedes. “It’s really hard to count cars when there’s beeping and people waving and you’re trying to wave back,” he said.

Hablewitz aims to display the banner on overpasses for some more waving when he has volunteers with him to help hold it in place. (An hour into that first effort he was told by a state worker that hanging the banner from the overpass is illegal. He said he promptly removed the banner.)

Bergerson said the state will continue to look for ways to improve the toll lanes.

“We’re listening. We know that drivers have frustrations,” he said. “All these other things aside, we are being genuine in wanting to create as big an improvement on traffic on 405 as we can.”

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