Most likely to improve congestion? Pavement

If you want a big improvement to the commute from hell, you need a lot more than tolls — you need more pavement.

Toll lane projects elsewhere in the country that saw the biggest improvement in the overall commute — not just for those in tolled lanes — added at least one lane of travel, and often more.

That includes I-95 in Miami, a darling of the tolling world.

The Miami 95 Express kept the same number of general purpose lanes, converted the previous HOV lane into a tolled lane, and added an additional tolled lane.

Before tolling, average speeds during the morning commute were at 20 mph in the carpool lane and 15 mph in general purpose lanes. By the end of 2014, commuters cruised along at an average 48 mph in the general purpose lanes, and at 62 mph if they paid for the express option.

For general purpose lane drivers, that’s an improvement of 220 percent.

Talk about Florida sunshine.

Other toll lane projects that involved adding pavement — I-15 in San Diego, the Katy Tollway (I-10) in Houston — also saw big improvements. Although similar to other areas, travel speeds have started to dip again as the economy improves.

Without major new infrastructure, toll lanes appear to have far less impact on the general commute — and sometimes don’t even improve the reserved lane commute.

Minnesota opened toll lanes in stages in 2009 and 2010 on the I-35W corridor through Minneapolis, converting HOV lanes. The toll lanes have been a success, keeping people moving at a good clip nearly all of the time. But speeds in the general purpose lanes have varied widely, according to a 2014 evaluation. In the southern stretch of the corridor, average general purpose lane speeds dipped by 1 to 2 mph compared to the year before tolling started.

A few months after opening its express lanes on I-110 in December 2012, Los Angeles County also saw traffic in general purpose lanes go slower. A final report of the program’s first year showed average speeds little better than before the project — and in the HOV-converted express lanes, too.

Today, the express lanes on I-110 are so clogged at times that they’re no longer open to toll-paying customers.

Other places have seen similar problems.

Exacerbating factors can be caused by toll lanes themselves, which often are accompanied by a drop in carpooling and more drivers entering the road at the peak hours they previously avoided.

There’s a fundamental law of congestion at work here.

Increase capacity whatever way you want, but people are going to fill in those gaps — if not right away, then eventually.

“That is generally true,” said Mark Burris, a research engineer with Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

But it’s important to focus on the human element, he added. “You have improved the lives of those people. Maybe they were traveling at 5 a.m., and now they’re traveling at 7 a.m. … I try to remind folks that, yeah, the traffic may fill up again, but that’s from people who have made a change they wanted to make. Maybe they can spend a few extra minutes at home with family now … because we’ve improved the commute.”

It remains to be seen if tolling substantially improves the commute on I-405 this fall.

The project involves converting the HOV lane to an express toll lane in both directions from Lynnwood to Bellevue. But in the southern stretch, south of Highway 522, the state also is widening the highway to add a second toll lane — the same kind of upgrade seen in Miami.

Every toll lane has its own story and results. They are, by nature, highly regional animals. Different states use different toll vendors. Some require carpools to use transponders, others don’t. Lanes in one place may be physically separate from general traffic, while in another they run side by side.

Patty Rubstello, director of toll operations for the Washington State Department of Transportation, urges people to reserve judgment on the I-405 express toll lanes until they’ve tried them out.

“If you haven’t used it, people are pretty skeptical of it,” she said. State focus groups have shown that, once people have experience with toll lanes, they like them enough to want more of them.

“It is about getting a reliable trip,” she said.

Just don’t bank on it being in anything but the fast lane.

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

Talk to us

More in Local News

The sign at Swedish Edmonds. (Herald file)
New deal gives Swedish nurses, health care workers a big boost in pay

The health care provider and SEIU 1199NW agreed to raises totaling at least 21.5% in the next three years

Ahadi family arriving in Washington on Oct. 22, 2021. (photo courtesy of Lutheran Community Services Northwest)
A year later, Afghan refugees in Lynnwood see brighter future ahead

Ziaurahman Ahadi served as a trauma medic on battlefields in Afghanistan. Now he builds fireplaces to support a family of eight.

4th defendant pleads guilty in white supremacist attack

Jason Stanley, of Boise, Idaho is one of four men prosecuted for attacking a Black DJ in Lynnwood.

A business on Highway 99 sustained heavy damage in a fire Wednesday morning north of Lynnwood. (South County Fire)
Arson damages building on Highway 99 north of Lynnwood

The fire in the 15800 block caused the highway to close between 156th and 164th streets SW on Wednesday morning.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Snohomish man suffers life-threatening injuries in police shootout

The Valley Independent Investigative Team reported state troopers returned fire when a driver shot at them near Clearview.

An EA-18G Growler taxis down the airstrip on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island during the squadron’s welcome home ceremony in August 2017. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Wood/U.S. Navy)
Talks break down over ‘remedy’ in Whidbey Island Growler lawsuit

“From the get-go, everyone recognized that it was probably going to end up in the court’s hands.”

Logo for news use featuring Camano Island in Island County, Washington. 220118
Island County settles sexual harassment lawsuit with deputy

The county will pay Deputy Mike Adrian a total of $105,000.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney in a video decries an erosion of public safety and increase in brazen criminal behavior. (Screenshot)
Snohomish County sheriff, chorus of local leaders decry policing reforms

Criminals are getting more brazen, they said. In a video, they called for easing vehicle pursuit rules and stiffening drug laws.

Attorney Michael Andrews, left, and Kyle Brown listen to the judge's address Wednesday afternoon at the Snohomish County Superior Courthouse in Everett, Washington on September 21, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Marysville ex-youth minister gets community service for sexual assault

Kyle Brown, of Marysville, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault with a sexual motivation last month. In 2019, he was charged with molestation.

Most Read