Rainy-day drivers are back; toll lanes are coming to I-405

Rain, rain, go away.

You’re making the commute take all day.

Forget red leaves. Red brake lights are the surest sign of the arrival of autumn.

The first big rains of the season are only one reason I-405 has been one big black line on the DOT maps lately. Increased traffic with school being back in session is another factor.

But while recent jams might be among the worst, seasoned Snohomish County commuters are not strangers to the slowdowns on I-405 as they try to slog their way to jobs on the Eastside.

Traffic. Traffic. (Insert colorful word of choice here) traffic.

It’s a good time for some reminders about navigating slick roads. Here are some tips for driving in the rain, courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation:

Leave early. Travel times get longer when the roads get wet.

Watch your speed and following distance. Give yourself plenty of room to brake and be especially cautious on curvy ramps.

Focus on the road.

Turn on those lights.

Check your tires.

It may please those commuters to know that some relief is on the way — next fall, anyway.

“Buying reliability”

Express tolling lanes are on track to open on 17 miles of I-405, from Lynnwood to Bellevue, in fall 2015. Those big empty signage bars across the HOV lane? The hardware, including cameras, signs, lighting and lasers, are starting to go up in our area.

It’s a tease of what’s to come.

Paying to use an express lane is not just about buying time, said Craig Stone, assistant secretary for the state Department of Transportation’s Toll Division. “You’re buying reliability. You actually know on that day that you can get there.”

Sweet nothings to the ear of the white-knuckled.

The express toll lane will be similar to Highway 167’s HOT lane between Renton and Auburn. HOT stands for “high occupancy toll,” an upgrade in moniker as well as function compared to the familiar HOV (“high occupancy vehicle”) lane.

Buses, motorcycles, vanpools and carpools would still get some privileges in the toll lane, as they do the HOV lane, though after tolling the carpool occupancy requirement likely will be higher. Early talks put it at three or more occupants rather than two.

The key difference is that single-occupant vehicles also can enter the lane by paying a fee, which changes depending on conditions. Prices on Highway 167 range from a minimum of 50 cents to a maximum of $9, though actual rates so far have topped out at about $6.50. Rates are set based on an algorithm that looks at factors like traffic flow and demand.

“It’s different than a bridge or a tunnel,” where one rate is in effect 24-7, Stone said. “This is actually real-time traffic. That’s the beauty of it.”

Traffic gurus aim for a sweet spot where all lanes of travel are moving smoothly. At minimum, they’re looking for 45 mph flow, 90 percent of the time. From Bothell to Bellevue, it could mean saving about 11 minutes of travel time.

The HOT lane on Highway 167 has made a difference, shaving 9 minutes off the average commute time at an average toll of $1.25.

Lyndsi Patton recently moved to Orting from Lynnwood and still commutes to Lynnwood for her job. She travels Highway 167 four days a week and uses the HOT lane during her morning commute.

“I can cut upwards of 20 minutes off my morning commute, and for me time is money,” said Patton, noting her total commute is about 2.5 hours one way.

The highest toll she’s seen is $4.75. She said she typically pays $1.75 to $3 and uses the Good2Go pass, which refills automatically for added convenience. Patton said she would find alternate routes if the toll went over the $5 mark.

Expect tolls to be higher on I-405.

There was less traffic to begin with on Highway 167. “We had space to sell,” Stone said. By contrast, the HOV lane is also maxed out on portions of I-405.

For that reason, WSDOT is adding an additional lane from Bothell to Bellevue. The new lane will join the existing HOV lane as a dual toll lane system. The existing HOV lane from Highway 522 to I-5 will be converted to a single toll lane.

There will be three zones, each with its own rate. So a driver coming onto the toll lane at Lynnwood would see three prices: to Bothell, to Kirkland and to Bellevue.

The Washington State Transportation Commission sets toll rates. They continue to work through policy issues, but a minimum of 80 cents to a maximum of $15 are among the numbers being discussed for I-405. Public hearings are expected early next year.

All tolling revenue raised on I-405 would go back into I-405 projects — namely, extending toll lanes all the way down to Renton.

“We’re trying to get the most from every square foot of pavement we have out there,” Stone said.

So, with a family member in our household braving an I-405 commute day in, day out, we are already starting to budget.

Maybe Daddy will be home in time for dinner, kids — next fall, anyway.

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

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