Legislation would change how new I-405 toll lanes are used

BOTHELL — Frustration with the new express lanes on I-405 spilled into the political arena Wednesday with two Republican lawmakers saying they want to reduce the number of toll lanes and let all drivers use them at night for free.

State Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, and Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said complaints from constituents are fueling their effort to change the operation of toll lanes that opened on the 17-mile stretch between Bellevue and Lynnwood in September.

“I’m hoping to address the big concerns I’ve heard people talk about and to provide some reasonable solutions without undoing the whole thing,” Harmsworth said shortly after a news conference at the UW Bothell campus.

“It has failed badly so let’s take a step back.”

Since tolling began Sept. 27, the northbound afternoon commute through Bothell has taken longer, and north-end commuters report it takes longer to get to their jobs going southbound in the morning, too.

Weekends see more congestion than usual, as well, and collisions are up as drivers get used to new lanes and the methods of getting in and out of them.

Earlier this month a group of residents formed Stop405tolls.org and launched an online petition that’s already garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

Harmsworth and Hill are sponsoring identical bills and prefiled them this week in advance of the 2016 session that starts Jan. 11.

As proposed, the legislation limits the Washington State Department of Transportation to one express toll lane in each direction. That would mean the second toll lane now between Bellevue and Bothell would become a general purpose lane.

The bill also would open toll lanes in both directions to any driver at no cost between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. daily and on state holidays. This is how it worked with the old carpool lane on this part of the I-405 corridor.

Finally, the bill calls for removing the double white-lines on the entire 17-mile stretch except in places where it might present a safety problem. This would make it easier for drivers to enter and exit the toll lanes; today drivers can only get in and out of the lanes at a limited number of places where there is a break in the double white lines.

On Wednesday, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee cautioned against expecting the bill to succeed this year.

“I am not interested at this point in making major changes,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “My goal is to make (toll lanes) work better for everyone.”

A Department of Transportation spokeswoman said there have been changes in response to issues raised by drivers. The most recent include extending the access point on northbound I-405 at NE 6th Street in Bellevue and removing some of the white striping on northbound I-405 approaching I-5 in Lynnwood to give drivers more room to merge to I-5 from the express toll lanes.

Clibborn said state law requires a review of the performance of these toll lanes in September 2017. At that point they could be significantly modified or even terminated.

“We said we would look at it in two years,” she said. “I don’t want people to think we’ll try a new idea every month. We have to allow things to shake out.”

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

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