I-405 toll lanes will be free on nights, weekends and holidays

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, February 3, 2016 8:54pm
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — Drivers will be able to use the I-405 express toll lanes for free on nights, weekends and holidays, the state Department of Transportation confirmed Wednesday.

Exactly when isn’t settled as agency leaders must consult with federal authorities and the state Transportation Commission before making any changes, a WSDOT spokeswoman said Wednesday.

“We do not yet know what the parameters will be for the hours of operation for express toll lanes,” spokeswoman Emily Pace said. “We will need to review data to help inform these parameters and work with the commission.”

The decision comes amid pressure from lawmakers and commuters frustrated by operational wrinkles and newly created bottlenecks encountered since the lanes opened on a 17-mile stretch between Lynnwood and Bellevue in late September.

On Tuesday, 11 Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson requesting several actions be taken to improve traffic flow.

Their list included adjusting access points to the toll lanes, improving signs and providing shoulders that can be used as travel lanes in both directions of I-405 north of State Route 522 where congestion has worsened since tolling began.

And they asked her to make the toll lanes available to all drivers at no cost during evenings, weekends and holidays.

“We feel that, while such a change might not be to the benefit of all commuters, it would be a show of good faith for those drivers who have experienced adverse effects on their time and their wallets,” they wrote. “We believe that the current demand on the corridor during other times will result in sufficient revenue being generated to meet the costs of operation.”

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, put together the letter. Sens. Marko Liias, of Lynnwood; Rosemary McAuliffe, of Bothell; and Steve Hobbs, of Lake Stevens, signed as did Bothell Reps. Derek Stanford and Luis Moscoso.

“This is in response to people who say they want this to work better,” Clibborn said Wednesday. “It is not a condemnation of the express toll lanes. It is just a matter of how to make it work better for all drivers.”

Since the express lanes went into operation, the state’s dealt with a few snafus in the collection of tolls. They’ve also made several adjustments aimed at making it easier for cars and buses to get in and out of the lanes.

State transportation officials say drivers traveling the entire 17-mile stretch of toll lanes save an average of 14 minutes and bus rides in the morning southbound commute are five to seven minutes faster, on average, than they were a year ago.

Even those traveling in the southbound regular lanes in the morning commute are shaving time off their trips, according to Assistant Secretary of Transportation Patty Rubstello. But the stretch near Highway 522 in Bothell is seeing increased congestion and the department is pondering solution for that.

Opening up the toll lanes for free during certain hours is an idea Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, proposed in a bill introduced last month. His bill also would to erase the double white lines and eliminate one toll lane in each direction between Bellevue and Bothell.

“It is part of the solution. It is a step in the right direction,” he said of the WSDOT decision. “But we still have to deal with the new congestion points that were created and the slowness in the regular lanes during the rush hour.”

The department is responding to what they are hearing from lawmakers, Pace said.

“We appreciate their constructive approach and support these improvements,” she said. “In response to customer comments and our own review of initial operation we have already begun work and are making good progress on some of the roadway improvements referenced in the letter.”

The state must consult the Federal Highway Administration to determine the process to change the hours of toll operations, she said. That’s because the state received federal funds to construct the carpool lanes on I-405 which have since been converted.

Transportation commissioners must be involved because they are responsible for setting toll rates and approving exemptions, she said.

Clibborn said she had not been given any time frame for getting that done. But once it is, she and the other lawmakers want the change to be permanent.

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

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