I-405’s express toll lanes are here, and they’re complicated

Expect lots of brake lights. Terrible congestion. And the new $338 million fast lanes designed to ease those troubles? Relatively empty.

That’s the prediction from the Washington State Department of Transportation, which urges patience and lowered expectations for the first commute week with tolling on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue.

“It’s going to take six months to a year to kind of settle down. We want our drivers to be prepared,” Stone said.

Tolling was set to begin today on 17 miles of I-405, assuming the weather cooperated with last-minute striping work. It would mean the carpool lane as we’ve known it is gone. Instead, any driver has the option to pay to use the fast lane.

There are still folks who can travel the lane for free, including transit, vanpools, motorcycles and carpools. But even they will need accounts and transponders.

In fact, there are so many asterisks to using the lanes — occupancy requirements for carpools, types of transponders needed, the actual amount people will pay — along with major changes to accessing them, that confusion already has been rampant.

WSDOT has spent $4.3 million in an effort to reach everyone who uses the corridor. That’s no small task on an interstate that sees nearly a half-million daily trips.

Newpspaper and TV ads. Instructional videos. Billboards. Free Flex Passes for registered carpools.

“People are going to have to kind of get used to what the lanes are, how to get in and out, what trips they might want to use the express toll lanes for,” Stone said.

Primed to pay

Toll lanes are seen as a relatively cheap way to add capacity. The theory is that dynamic pricing manages congestion to keep speeds in toll lanes at a minimum of 45 mph 90 percent of the time, a federal requirement.

And road-weary commuters may be primed to pay for that reliability.

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

“There’s no question” that toll lanes help traffic move better in major metropolitan areas, said Robert Poole, a longtime tolling proponent and Reason Foundation fellow who has advised WSDOT. “The congestion is not only so intense but so large in total numbers of people affected that, just statistically speaking, you’re going to find a goodly number of people willing to pay for peak trips.”

Washington is well-positioned for a smooth start-up, Poole said.

Typically, it takes only a couple weeks for a new normal to settle in, agreed Matthew Click, director of priced managed lanes at HNTB Corp., one of the companies involved with the I-405 project.

“The corridor is going to change… So travel behavior and travel patterns in the corridor are going to change as well,” Click said.

A toll-filled future?

The shift isn’t just on the pavement, though, but in how our state approaches its most congested roadways.

A pilot project, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on Highway 167 south of Renton, is what Stone dubs version 1.0.

The I-405 express toll lanes are version 2.0.

Version 3.0 already is in the works: a $1.2 billion project to connect the two systems by the 2020s.

There also are studies on extending toll lanes to I-5, from Everett to Tacoma.

“But there’s no legislative plans of that nature right now,” Stone said. “We need to get the experiences of I-405 and make sure it’s working and meeting the performance measures, and then that continues down 405.”

Experiences in other major metropolitan areas, however, show this is a trend that’s likely to stick.

“There are about 28 operational priced managed lanes across the country in about 12 urban areas. And that number will be wrong in about two weeks. … We have as many currently in development as we do open,” said Click, of HNTB.

That’s not to say tolling is always popular. Parts of Texas, a leading tolling state, are experiencing a public backlash.

Skepticism is expected.

“You just need to try it,” Stone said. “Once people start using it, they start to understand it and they start to like it being there.”

Authorizing legislation requires that the I-405 toll lanes operate in the black and meet performance standards within two years. WSDOT projections show that happening.

“The new lanes we’re putting in there … it’s going to be there for the future,” Stone said.

And that future may include more lanes like it.

“In the urban environment, (toll lanes) are here to stay,” Click said. “People are proving it every day with their wallets.”

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