For months I steered clear. I didn’t need to make the Lynnwood-to-Bellevue drive when I-405 express toll lanes first opened in September.
Week after week, I’d hear morning traffic reports, which now include the changing prices of life in the I-405 fast lanes. I would read about drivers’ frustrations. Pay-to-go is only part of the system. It also hiked from two to three the number of people needed in a car for free use of the lanes.
Then came December and January, when I made several trips to Eastern Washington on I-90. Most of my drives started on Saturday mornings, with returns on weekend evenings. Rather than go into Seattle to access I-90, I took I-405.
What I saw was a ridiculous waste of two lanes. Nearly all the traffic was crammed into the general purpose lanes. Every now and then, I’d see a car in a toll lane. On Saturdays and Sundays, tolls were mostly 75 cents per trip.
Then came last Wednesday. I had a 10 a.m. appointment near Yakima. Despite a drive likely to be slow due to winter weather through Snoqualmie Pass, I had to go. Allowing for an extra hour on a typically two-and-a-half to three-hour drive, I left at 6 a.m.
No surprise, traffic was already heavy from Everett to Lynnwood. I expected that. For years, I drove in carpools when my older kids attended Catholic high schools in Seattle. Having never made the weekday morning commute to Bellevue, I didn’t expect what I saw soon after exiting I-5 for I-405 — brake lights and more brake lights.
With speeds from dead-stop to 10 miles an hour, I looked for the express toll lane entry point. I saw the price tag — $8.50 at the time — and made a quick decision. It was either get in or add an extra hour to a long trip.
My time-saving move actually cost $2 more because I don’t have a Good To Go Flex Pass. I’m waiting for the bill, which should arrive by mail.
How was my drive that morning? It was fast, close to 60 miles an hour with a few slow spots. And it was scary.
Legally, you’re only supposed to enter toll lanes at designated places. I saw one car risk it all by crossing the solid double lines. Stuck in gridlock, the driver gunned it from a near stop into the toll lane right in front of me. Going close to 60 miles an hour, I hit the brakes. I was terrified that cars on my tail wouldn’t see me slow down in time to hit their brakes.
After a sigh of relief, I zipped through Bellevue. In no time, I was taking the I-90 eastbound exit. In one trip, I became a reluctant fan of express toll lanes. I couldn’t afford it regularly. On that rare day when I had to be out early and on time, it was worth the cost.
There’s action in Olympia on improving the I-405 system, but not as much change as critics want.
On Tuesday, House Democrats announced changes developed with the state Department of Transportation to improve I-405 safety and congestion. The improvements include: lengthening access to the toll lanes where entry and exit has been difficult; making merging at the north and south end points easier and safer; and using signs to more clearly show when and how tolls are processed.
Those planned changes followed last week’s I-405 work session in the House Transportation Committee. It included state transportation officials, local governments, and a leader of a grassroots group that has gathered signatures on a petition to stop tolling.
In a letter to state officials, Transportation Committee members and lawmakers representing people along I-405 called for ongoing monitoring of the system. They also want toll lanes open to everyone on evenings, weekends and holidays.
Also Tuesday, the leadership of the Stop405Tolls group expressed dissatisfaction that there won’t be a hearing on proposed legislation aimed at incrementally eliminating 405 toll lanes. House Bill 2312 was written by Rep. Mark Harmsworth, a Mill Creek Republican.
On Friday, Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Mercer Island Democrat and Transportation Committee chairwoman, said she wouldn’t schedule a hearing on the bill, nor on any companion version in the Senate.
“It is incredibly disturbing to know Rep. Clibborn carelessly ignores the unmistakable message of the collective voice of, at the present time, 30,000 frustrated commuters and taxpayers who have signed our anti-toll lane petition,” Cynthia Ulrich, one of the Stop405Tolls group founders, said Tuesday in a press release.
From behind the wheel, I’ve seen why petition signers are frustrated. Yet on one recent morning, the toll lanes were a huge help.
I see both sides. And I wasn’t going to do it, but I may get a Flex Pass.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.