Is it a Lexus lane? Who uses express toll lanes

It’s not a Lexus lane — not literally, anyway.

Express toll lanes are replacing the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue this fall. They join similar toll lanes on Highway 167 south of Renton — and on roadways across the country.

Since the 1990s, critics of toll lanes have called them “Lexus lanes,” a perk for the rich. The dig is that only the well-off can afford the price and the pleasure of passing the glut of rush-hour taillights.

There have been similar rumblings here as we anticipate our own high-occupancy toll lanes. When up and running, only carpools with three or more people and a special transponder affixed to the windshield will be able to use the lane for free during rush hours.

In the literal sense, toll lanes are not Lexus lanes.

Lexus comes in at No. 15, for example, on the list of the most frequently tolled vehicles on the Highway 167 HOT lanes.

The top 5 are Ford, Chevrolet/GMC, Toyota, Honda and Dodge.

It’s a fun fact. But it’s not really the point.

“Lexus lane was used to catch someone’s attention,” said Heidi Stamm, a Seattle consultant who coined the phrase when the topic of tolled lanes first came up around here in 1993. “It’s not because I hate Lexuses. … There are some Ford F-150s that cost way more than a Lexus.”

But, you know, Ford F-150 lane doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Her point in 1993 and 22 years later is the same: “A swift and safe trip … is not a benefit that is only for people who can, for whatever reason, choose to spend their money on a nice car,” she said.

Folks with the Washington state Department of Transportation are swift to point out that lower-income drivers do use tolled lanes, including on Highway 167, and report liking the option — even wanting more of it available.

“Using HOT lanes or express toll lanes is really about giving people choices,” Director of Toll Operations Patty Rubstello said. “There are low-income users, and they do find value in having that choice when they need it.”

The average morning toll on Highway 167 was $2.25 and the average time savings for HOT lane users was eight minutes off the morning commute, two key figures reported in the WSDOT Toll Division annual report for fiscal year 2014.

That works out to about 28 cents a minute.

Nearly 7 in 10 drivers with household incomes under $50,000 said it was money well spent.

Who uses toll lanes

In terms of sheer numbers, though, toll lanes are used most heavily by the well-off. Those Fords are awful shiny.

In a 2013 survey of Highway 167 toll lane users, 3,307 reported household incomes over $50,000. That’s nearly 8 times the 422 drivers with household incomes under $50,000.

The largest group of users who reported income were those who made $150,000 or more (844 survey respondents), according to raw data the state gave me. (There were 1,268 respondents who opted not to report their household income.)

Drivers in the $100,000-$124,999 range were the heaviest users, more likely than other groups to use the HOT lanes four or more times per week.

Drivers with incomes under $20,000 were the most likely to use the lanes just once a month or less.

In more ways than pocket change, this makes sense.

In general, higher-income workers are more likely to be in the commuting ranks.

Lower-income workers also are more likely to be on the buses. And state leaders note that transit also stands to benefit from a more free-flowing lane of traffic.

A 2008 federal study of the equity issue concluded that “the perception of unfairness may be exaggerated.”

In Orange County, California, when toll prices rose, people in the lowest income group did not reduce their travel, but people of moderate income did. Researchers said this suggests that people with lower incomes may have less flexibility in the time they travel.

That still gives folks like Stamm reason to pause.

Positive feedback on surveys doesn’t mean lower-income drivers like paying to use a toll lane to get to their child’s daycare or to their job or to a hearing on time. “It means that they need it,” Stamm said. “Those are two very different things.”

Have a question? Email me at streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your first and last name and city of residence. Look for updates on our Street Smarts blog at www.heraldnet.com/streetsmarts.

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