I-405 express-lanes tolling Q&A

What are we talking about again?

The I-405 express toll lanes are set to open today, replacing the carpool lane from the junction with I-5 in Lynnwood to NE Sixth Street in Bellevue, a distance of about 17 miles. South of Highway 522, the state also added an additional lane for two express toll lanes down to Bellevue.

Did they take away any general purpose lanes?

No, the number of general purpose lanes is the same.

Do I have to pay to drive on I-405?

No. Only if you use a toll lane.

Why the second toll lane?

South of Highway 522 even the carpool lane was clogged about 60 percent of weekdays.

Why toll lanes?

Drivers on I-405 experience some of the worst traffic in the state. A reliable trip for a commuter driving alone requires setting aside almost 70 minutes for what should be a 19-minute trip. At the same time, jobs are on the rise, and the population with it. By 2030, the population is expected to grow by over 600,000 people — equivalent to roughly all of Snohomish County outside of Everett.

Yes, but why toll lanes?

Toll lanes are a relatively cheap way to add capacity without major infrastructure changes, officials said. They also can push people to use public transportation. Dynamic pricing manages congestion to keep speeds in the toll lanes at a minimum of 45 mph 90 percent of the time, something required by the federal government.

How much are the tolls?

Depends on traffic conditions and how far you travel in the lane. The minimum toll is 75 cents. Tolls could go as high as $10. The typical toll range is expected to be 75 cents to $4. Vehicles without a Good To Go account pay $2 extra.

How will I know?

Signs will show current toll rates for the three zones of travel and list carpool requirements. The rate and the carpool requirements that are posted when you enter the lane reflect what you will pay, even if those figures change during your travel in the lane.

What hours do the express toll lanes operate?

The express toll lanes operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Who can still drive free?

If you take transit, are part of a registered vanpool, or meet carpool requirements, you can travel the lane toll-free. Carpools must have a Good To Go account, a Flex Pass switched to “HOV” mode, and at least three people during peak periods (or at least two people all other times).

What about motorcycles?

Motorcycles ride free with a Good To Go motorcycle pass. If you ride a motorcycle on I-405, you can request a free motorcycle pass while supplies last in 2015.

I carpool. Can I get a free Flex Pass?

Free Flex Passes are available while supplies last to qualifying carpools. You must live, work or play in King or Snohomish counties and carpool at least once a week. Learn more and sign up at rideshareonline.com.

What are the peak hours?

Peak periods are 5-9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. weekdays.

How are the carpool rules enforced?

Washington State Patrol will enforce the express toll lanes and extra patrols are on the corridor for the launch. WSDOT is paying the tab. Other drivers can also report HOV violators, who are sent warnings.

Anyone who can’t drive in these lanes?

Vehicles more than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight are prohibited.

What about visitors?

The state will send them a bill in the mail (including the $2 added fee) based on their license plate. Or, you can be nice to Aunt Ethel and temporarily add her vehicle to your own Good To Go account to pay the standard toll rate.

We have more than one car.

You can have up to six vehicles on one account. Also, passes don’t need to be linked to specific vehicles. So movable transponders, like the Flex Pass, can be used on any of the vehicles listed on your account.

Wait, you just said “transponder.”

Yes, as my friend Merriam-Webster puts it, a transponder is “a device that receives a radio signal and sends out a signal in response and that is used especially to show the location of something.” The user-friendly term used by Good To Go is “pass.”

How much is a pass?

It depends on what kind of pass. The cheapest is a sticker for $5. The most expensive is the Flex Pass for $15, a candy bar-sized transponder that switches between “HOV” and “TOLL” modes and is required for carpools who want to drive toll-free.

What else do I have to pay?

It costs $30 to open a Good To Go account. Refills also require a minimum $30. If you sign up with a credit or debit card, the account will automatically refill to $30 when you hit an $8 minimum balance, unless you revise those figures (but only upward).

This is adding up fast.

Accounts can be closed anytime and whatever money is left will be refunded. Any pass you have would no longer work.

Will my account ever expire?

After two years without toll activity, a Good To Go account would be charged a $5 fee and then closed. Any remaining funds would be refunded (except unregistered accounts).

Am I required to sign up?

No. You can do absolutely nothing and still drive in the toll lanes. You’ll just get a bill in the mail for the toll, plus $2.

Do I really need a pass?

No. You can set up a Good To Go account and only give your license plate number. That’s called a pay by plate account. With that, you would pay the toll, plus 25 cents.

I’m worried about theft.

Sticker passes are tough little suckers to remove and probably wouldn’t survive the transition. Flex Passes can be removed from their plastic clip when not in use.

I’m worried about Big Brother.

The state says it takes privacy concerns seriously. There are unregistered pass accounts available at walk-in customer service centers. They require no identifying contact information.

I’m just worried.

Me, too. But apparently it’s natural and we’ll supposedly grow to appreciate toll lanes.

(Crickets chirping)

(Crickets chirping)

So you mentioned customer service centers?

Yes, Good To Go walk-in customer service centers are in Seattle (4554 Ninth Ave. NE), Bellevue (13107 NE 20th St., Suites 3 and 4), and Gig Harbor (3212 50th St. Court NW, Suite 200). They are open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays.

Where else could I get set up?

In most cases, you should be able to get everything you want online, at mygoodtogo.com. You can also call 866-936-8246. Extended call center hours (through Oct. 23) are 7 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays. Select Walgreens, QFC and Fred Meyer stores also sell passes, but you’d still need to go online or call Good To Go to set up an account. See a list of retail locations at www.wsdot.wa.gov/GoodToGo/retail.htm.

Why the big push for a pass, anyway?

When linked to an active account, passes allow drivers to pay the lowest rate. Carpoolers must have a Flex Pass to travel the lanes for free.

And …

And, yes, there may be another reason for the push to get a transponder — it helps pay for the system. A Cambridge Systematics study estimated 45 percent transponder ownership in the corridor versus 20 percent ownership would yield three times more revenue. The system must become self-sufficient within two years under state law, so dollars like that quickly become important.

So, random — I heard something about metalized windshields …

Flex Passes might not work on certain windshields, including metalized windshields and others with eyesight safety technology. I don’t know what that is either. There’s a list of possible vehicles with these features at http://tinyurl.com/MetalWindshield. If your vehicle is on the list, you might need a license plate transponder. WSDOT is working on a better solution. Find out more at http://tinyurl.com/WindshieldInfo.

How do I get into the lane?

Merge to the far left regular lane of I-405 and enter the express toll lanes at a designated access point. Designated access points are marked with dashed lines. Or take a direct access ramp to enter I-405 onto the express toll lanes, with no merging required.

Where are the direct access ramps?

NE Sixth Street in Bellevue and NE 128th Street in Kirkland.

What about those other access points?

There, the double white lines give way to dashed white lines. These access distances are anywhere from one-third to over three-quarters of a mile in length, which WSDOT says should provide drivers enough room to adjust speeds and merge. The ticket for crossing double white lines is $136.

Sounds complicated.

Try mapping out a game plan using the state’s interactive map, at www.wsdot.wa.gov/tolling/405/map. There are some animated videos, as well, which if you’re a cartoon might be helpful. Find those at http://tinyurl.com/405TollVideos.

Speaking of primary colors, I use Google Maps. What are they doing?

They won’t cough up details, but on the 1-95 express toll lanes in Miami, color-coded conditions are be shown by lane. The presence of the lanes will be labeled, in any case.

Wait a minute, I commute on I-5. Are tolls coming there too?

There have been studies, but there’s no legislative authority to make it reality yet. Regional transportation planners call for full highway system tolls through King, Pierce and Snohomish counties by 2040. Next up is the southern half of I-405, from Bellevue to Renton, a $1.2 billion project to be completed in the 2020s.

Isn’t this just all about revenue?

The primary goal of toll lanes is to move more vehicles and people through the corridor. But generally speaking tolls also are viewed as a long-term revenue source in a shift away from the gas tax. Nationally, U.S. toll agencies collected $13 billion in toll revenues in 2013.

I’m sorry, what?

That’s $13 billion nationwide. Actually, that’s only 5 percent of highway revenues, but it’s a growing share of the transportation funding pie. Gas taxes represent a 30 percent slice. (You can read much more at ibtta.org).

How much did the I-405 express toll lanes cost?

From engineering to construction, $338 million. That’s $19.8 million per mile, or $676 for each of the estimated half-million trips it sees each day. It’s also on time and under budget.

How was the project funded?

Nearly 95 percent was covered by gas taxes. (Ba dum ching.)

When did the project begin?

Depends. Environmental work to pave the way started in 2005. Active construction began in June 2012.

Where does my toll go?

About 65 percent will go to maintenance and operations of the I-405 toll system. Of that, 31 percent goes to lane system maintenance, 25 percent to back office services and customer services, 20 percent to Washington State Patrol services and 24 percent to credit card fees, printing, postage and the WSDOT Toll Division. Anything above that goes back into I-405 projects.

Who else is seeing this money?

There are two key vendors on the receiving end. The first is France-based Schneider Electric (formerly Spain-based Telvent), with a $12 million contract over 10 years for the lane system. Think cameras, pass readers — all the techy stuff overhead. They perform the same job on the Highway 520 bridge. The other is Texas-based Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp. (ETCC), which runs the customer service center on a $6.8 million contract. If you were one of those with a 45-minute-and-counting wait time on the phone or a dropped online application on the website while trying to set up a Good To Go account — that was them. ETCC could be on its way out in 2018.

“Techy stuff.” Nice. What is it actually?

The equipment mounted on the 21 toll gantries includes:

• License plate cameras with a flash.

• A light sensor for the cameras.

• Laser scanners, used to help determine when a car enters and leaves the toll zone.

• Antennas to read the transponders on vehicles.

There also is a flash to alert troopers to vehicles claiming to be carpools.

Where else does Washington toll?

The Highway 520 and Tacoma Narrows bridges. And the Highway 167 high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes south of Renton.

How are the 167 HOT lanes different from the I-405 express toll lanes?

A key difference is that carpools do not need to be set up with Good To Go to travel for free in the Highway 167 HOT lanes, which also still require only two people in the vehicle at any time. A Good To Go Flex Pass is required to travel toll-free as a carpool in the I-405 express toll lanes because WSDOT is providing a pay by mail option, which is not available the 167 HOT lanes.

So I guess the I-405 “express toll lanes” are …

… Not so “HOT.”

Hey, where are you going?

Oh, I’m done. My fingers are cramping up from all this typing.

But I have more questions!

Here are a couple websites from WSDOT that might help:

– All things Good To Go 405.

Top 10 things you need to know about I-405 express toll lanes.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Flex Pass.

And some popular topics from the truly amazing Street Smarts blog (ahem):

Will you still carpool? Trying to find one?

It takes more than tolls to improve the worst commutes.

Expect small improvements in general purpose lanes.

Is it a Lexus lane?

Find more at http://tinyurl.com/HeraldNetI405.

Have still more questions? Email us at streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your first and last name and city of residence. Look for updates on the Street Smarts blog.

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