I-405 toll-lane traffic not meeting standard for speed

Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on I-405 on Feb. 16, 2016, in Bothell. Lately the rates have been hitting the maximum $10 almost daily. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file)

Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on I-405 on Feb. 16, 2016, in Bothell. Lately the rates have been hitting the maximum $10 almost daily. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file)

Tolls on I-405 are hitting the maximum $10 posted rate almost daily. Money is flowing. Profitability is not a problem.

But one year into the experiment, the lanes are failing a second key standard.

Traffic within the lanes is now moving at 45 mph or faster just 85 percent of the time. That’s below the required 90 percent threshold, which the state had been meeting across the 17-mile tolling corridor until June.

“We’re looking at a whole host of things to try to address that,” said Patty Rubstello, toll operations director for the Washington State Department of Transportation, during a Nov. 16 presentation to the Washington State Transportation Commission, which sets toll rates. “We want to look at any operational things that we can further refine out there to bring that back up.”

The problem is northbound in Snohomish County.

The state added a lane in both directions of I-405 south of Highway 522 — but it did not do the same north of Bothell. The result is an even larger bottleneck for commuters heading home in the evening, with five lanes going down to three. Two express toll lanes also go down to one at that point. The area also includes a busy interchange at Highway 527 at Canyon Park.

“There’s just so much more traffic getting there, (and getting there) much faster,” Rubstello said.

One project aimed at helping ease the crunch is coming this spring, when WSDOT plans to open up shoulder driving in a 1.8-mile stretch. The right-hand shoulder will become a general purpose lane only in heavy congestion and be managed using electronic signs.

As for other improvements? “More information will be coming out on that,” Rubstello said.

For those who think this might spell the end of tolling, think again.

State legislation that authorized the lanes gave a two-year window for the project to pay for itself and meet traffic speed standards.

“Tolling would cease if we’re not meeting both. It does not have a mandated consequence if we’re missing one but not the other,” said Ethan Bergerson, a WSDOT spokesman.

State planners are taking things a step at a time.

“What we’re focused on right now is doing everything we can to improve performance up there,” Bergerson said.

Shutting down tolling in the single-toll lane section is not on the table.

“It’s definitely early to get into something like that,” he said. “It’s not just like flipping a switch. It would require funding to go in and change striping and taking down signs.” That, too, would involve the Legislature.

The federal government also could have a voice in the future.

The Federal Highway Administration enforces the 45 mph standard in toll lanes. California is among states that have been urged to make changes for failing to meet the standard. But there’s typically no heavy hand involved.

“We definitely work with the state. We work with them to understand what the issues are,” said Nancy Singer, a FHA spokeswoman.

Washington is not on any federal radar, she added.

“It’s sort of too early to write it off. (The lanes) are relatively new,” she said. The state has yet to submit its annual certification report, she added. “They need to report. … From there, we would work with the state, if indeed there was an issue.”

In last week’s briefing before the Commission, which was filmed by the Stop405Tolls group, Rubstello noted that while the express toll lanes are falling short of the 90 percent mark, it’s still better than the 60 percent seen in the former high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.

Critics who commented at the public meeting noted, however, that the improvement was because of the added lane, not tolls. And moving more vehicles does not necessarily mean moving more people because of a drop in carpool rates. Both are key distinctions, ones this column has discussed since even before the lanes opened.

The state has lumped improvements under the banner of tolling, said Philip Skoog, of Bothell.

“They haven’t separated the two,” he said in public comments at the meeting. “Tolling is not very effective. What’s effective is adding more real estate.”

Drivers using the toll lanes through Snohomish County are far more likely to pay that maximum $10 posted toll rate.

The state expects to send $6 of that $10 back into improvements in the corridor, with an initial emphasis on fixing the northbound commute. Adding another lane north of Highway 522 is in the long-term plans.

“In the end, no matter how high you raise the toll, there still will be more cars coming. And the tolling is not what is going to relieve this problem,” said David Hablewitz, of Bothell.

But it may help pay for the relief.

Street Smarts: 425-339-3432; streetsmarts@heraldnet.com.

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