A photo illustration depicting the planned use of shoulder driving on I-405. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

A photo illustration depicting the planned use of shoulder driving on I-405. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

I-405 stretch to be ready for shoulder driving next summer

BOTHELL —Higher-than-expected toll collections are enabling the state to speed up a project to ease congestion for afternoon commuters on northbound I-405 through Bothell.

Gov. Jay Inslee and state transportation officials announced Wednesday the $11.5 million project to open the right shoulder between Highway 527 and I-5 to all vehicles will be done next summer rather than in early 2018 as originally expected.

“When you are stuck in traffic, you want relief as soon as possible,” Inslee said in a statement. “Express toll lanes have made the commute faster for most travelers, but a traffic choke point remains on northbound I-405 near Bothell and drivers need relief.”

This project, which will cover about 1.8 miles, entails hardening the existing shoulder and installing signs to let commuters know when the shoulder is available as a lane. State officials expect it to be open daily from 3-7 p.m. and in bouts of congestion due to accidents or other incidents.

The Department of Transportation is pressing ahead because it expects to have the money to cover costs. As of June, toll collections totalled $12.4 million which was nearly $9 million more than the agency forecast when the lanes opened in September. By June 2017, revenues are predicted to be $21 million higher than forecast.

“That’s the good news,” Assistant Secretary of Transportation Patty Rubstello said in an interview. “We can reinvest that revenue in the corridor. Our motivation is to get some relief out to areas where we haven’t seen improvements.”

Since the express toll lanes opened on the 17-mile corridor, cars and buses are enjoying faster travel in most stretches, according to Department of Transportation analyses.

Still there’s been plenty of frustration among commuters. In March, the state Transportation Commission agreed to make the toll lanes free to all vehicles at night, on weekends and on six major holidays. That change, sought by lawmakers and Inslee, became permanent in July.

But the afternoon commute on northbound I-405 between Highway 522 and I-5 is a different story. Drivers are spending several minutes longer tied up in traffic than before the toll lanes opened. Part of the problem is the bottleneck created where the number of lanes goes from five to three. Merging traffic from Highway 527 further clogs the flow.

At the request of Inslee, lawmakers set aside $30 million in the 2017-19 transportation budget for this shoulder hardening project.

As engineers dug into the design details, the costs dropped significantly, said Kim Henry, the I-405 project director.

One reason is the original estimate assumed that stretch of roadway would need to be widened but it won’t, he said. Also, it was assumed that two noise walls would need to be constructed. It turned out a single shorter noise wall is sufficient, he said.

When the project is completed, the added capacity should erase much of the congestion, transportation officials said.

But tie-ups won’t end, they said. Drivers can expect to encounter back-ups at the interchange of I-5 and I-405 as cars slow to merge onto northbound I-5, they cautioned.

People can learn more about the hard shoulder project at a public meeting Aug. 18 in Bothell City Hall. State transportation officials will be on hand to answer questions from 5 to 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers, 18415 101st Avenue NE, in Bothell.

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

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