Raising HOV lane requirement to 3 ‘difficult to justify’

The magic of three does not extend to the “fast” lane of interstate highways — at least not without some dollar signs attached.

John Dewhirst, of Edmonds, wonders if the Washington State Department of Transportation will change I-5 high-occupancy vehicle lane rules to three or more occupants — rather than the current two-plus rule — given persistent congestion in the lanes.

Congestion in the HOV lanes “from Everett to Seattle is seriously hampering the buses maintaining their schedules,” Dewhirst said.

Community Transit commuter buses on I-5 were late one quarter of the time in 2014, and HOV lane drivers had to budget more than 1 hour 10 minutes if they wanted to get to Seattle on time.

With no room to expand the interstate along its length, folks such as Dewhirst say an occupancy hike makes sense.

“I think the time for such a study and determination is long overdue,” Dewhirst said.

A 2011 University of Washington study of the ongoing problem noted another possible solution that takes things a step further: Kick out carpools entirely and make the I-5 HOV lanes transit-only.

But in both cases — going three-plus or transit-only — the writers noted it may not be “politically feasible.”

Nor would it necessarily be wise on its own, say planners with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Either of those fixes would certainly solve HOV congestion, but at the expense of the general purpose lanes, making bad congestion there even worse.

Keeping the regular lanes moving — even if it’s at a snail’s pace — is still a priority, too, with lots of economy-driving business in the corridor. Not everyone can accommodate a second occupant, much less a third. Think also of the semi-truck driver moving freight, who is banned from the HOV lane regardless.

“We need to be looking at the system as a whole. … They’re all great customers. They move a ton of people,” said Travis Phelps, a WSDOT spokesman. “It’s a balance that we have to keep going.”

For now, encouraging more people to join a van pool or get on a bus might be the best bet for reducing congestion in the HOV lane.

“Transit and van pool vehicles on I-5 at the Snohomish-King County line comprise less than 350 vehicles during peak commute times,” said Justin Fujioka, another WSDOT spokesman. “These wonderful forms of transit offer tons of benefits, but it is difficult to justify an HOV three-plus switch at the present time.”

Light rail could make at least a tiny dent on the problem. If the Sound Transit 3 proposal passes the November ballot, Community Transit buses one day could bow out of the I-5 commute.

Then there’s that magic word: tolling.

If HOV lanes on I-5 do go to a three-plus carpool requirement, it likely would be in conjunction with tolling — the same approach the state took on I-405.

When is 45 mph required?

So at what point do things get bad enough that change is forced?

There is no legal mandate that the state increase the occupancy requirement — or do much of anything, actually — in its HOV lanes.

State policy says to “consider” going three-plus when an HOV facility is no longer reliably moving drivers along at speeds of at least 45 mph.

The federal government only enforces that 45 mph standard (specifically, a minimum 45 mph over 90 percent of the peak commute hours in a 180-day period) if a state allows single occupant drivers to use the lanes — such as by paying a toll.

In the past year, California has had to explain why it’s failed that standard after allowing tens of thousands of hybrid vehicles to use its HOV lanes regardless of occupancy, as well as toll-paying single drivers. More than half of the Bay Area’s HOV lanes are considered degraded.

The feds told the state to increase the occupancy requirement, increase tolls on toll lanes, kick out clean-air vehicles with solo drivers, or build more lanes.

In response, California planners slammed the standard as too stringent — claiming it can be missed with just two crash-plagued weekdays — and claim the real measure of success is whether the reserved lanes move folks faster than the regular lanes.

Maybe it’s not 45 mph, but 35 mph is still better than 20 mph.

The Federal Highway Administration could still hand WSDOT some advice on I-5 if a public outcry reached its offices, said Nancy Singer, a spokeswoman in Washington D.C.

But there’s limits to what transportation planners can do, she noted.

“If it’s congestion — what do you do?” Singer said. “It’s an overall congestion management question or solution, and it’s not easy.”

Meanwhile, the state will start reporting to the feds its reliability rates on the I-405 express toll lanes after hitting the one-year mark in late September.

So far, the state says it’s meeting the 45 mph standard — barely.

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

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A big decision for Boeing’s next CEO: Is it time for a new plane?

As Boeing faces increased competition from Airbus, the company is expected to appoint a new CEO by the end of the year.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road in Mukilteo. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Mukilteo Speedway name change is off to a bumpy start

The city’s initial crack at renaming the main drag got over 1,500 responses. Most want to keep the name.

Two workers walk past a train following a press event at the Lynnwood City Center Link Station on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Trains up and running on Lynnwood Link — but no passengers quite yet

Officials held an event at the Lynnwood station announcing the start of “pre-revenue” service. Passengers still have to wait till August.

Nedra Vranish, left, and Karen Thordarson, right browse colorful glass flowers at Fuse4U during Sorticulture on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A promenade through Everett’s popular Sorticulture garden festival

Check out a gallery of the festival’s first day.

Left to right, Everett Pride board members Ashley Turner, Bryce Laake, and Kevin Daniels pose for a photo at South Fork Bakery in Everett, Washington on Sunday, May 26, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Second Everett Pride aims for even bigger rainbow of festivities

Organizers estimated about 3,000 people attended the first block party in Everett. This year, they’re aiming for 10,000.

A BNSF train crosses Grove St/72nd St, NE in Marysville, Washington on March 17, 2022. Marysville recently got funding for design work for an overcrossing at the intersection. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
BNSF owes nearly $400M to Washington tribe, judge rules

A federal judge ruled last year that the railroad trespassed as it sent trains carrying crude oil through the Swinomish Reservation.

Everett Housing Authority is asking for city approval for its proposed development of 16 acres of land currently occupied by the vacant Baker Heights public housing development on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett inches closer to Park District affordable housing plan

Building heights — originally proposed at 15 stories tall — could be locked in with council approval in July.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Highway 529 squeeze starts now between Everett, Marysville

Following a full closure for a night, starting late Sunday, Highway 529 will slim down to two lanes for months near the Snohomish River Bridge.

The intersection of Larch Way, Logan Road and Locust Way on Wednesday, March 27, 2024 in Alderwood Manor, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Roundabout project to shut down major Bothell intersection for months

The $4.5 million project will rebuild the four-way stop at Larch and Locust ways. The detour will stretch for miles.

State Sen. Mark Mullet, left, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, right, are both running as Democrats for governor in 2024. (Photos courtesy of Mullet and Ferguson campaigns)
Rival Democrats spar over fundraising in Washington governor’s race

Mark Mullet is questioning Bob Ferguson’s campaign finance connections with the state party. Ferguson says the claims are baseless.

A log truck rolled over into power lines on Monday, June 17, in Darrington. (Photo provided by Alexis Monical)
Log truck rolls into utility lines in Darrington, knocking out power

The truck rolled over Monday morning at the intersection of Highway 530 and Fullerton Avenue. About 750 addresses were without power.

A house fire seriously injured two people Friday evening, June 14, in Edmonds, Washington. (Courtesy of South County Fire.)
1 killed, 1 with life-threatening injuries in Edmonds house fire

South County Fire crews pulled the man and woman from the burning home around 6 p.m. Friday, near 224th Street SW and 72nd Place W.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.