Some oppose opening I-405 toll lanes to all during certain times

LYNNWOOD — Not everyone is pleased the state is letting drivers use the I-405 express toll lanes for free at night and on weekends starting Friday.

Community Transit officials opposed the move, asking members of the state Transportation Commission to “stay the course” over worries the change could result in longer trips for their bus and vanpool riders.

In their March 14 letter, district officials also asked commissioners to consider providing a means to restart tolling at night and on weekends when traffic in the toll lanes is moving at less than 45 miles per hour.

“That would be consistent with one of the original purposes of the tolls: to manage congestion,” wrote Joy Munkers, the district’s planning and development director. “Transit still runs on weekends and people still have needs for a more rapid trip that would make them willing to pay a toll.”

That letter was the only written opposition received by commissioners before they voted Tuesday to make the switch.

“We didn’t necessarily think it would change their minds but we wanted to be on the record with our view,” Community Transit spokesman Martin Munguia said. “The express toll lanes are working for transit. We are seeing reduced trip times. We appreciate that travel time advantage.”

There’s concern about the precedent this action sets, he said. Lawmakers originally committed to give the toll lanes two years before initiating any significant changes. It’s been less than six months, he said.

“We don’t know what the impact will be on transit,” he said. “There is always the potential this will create a snowball effect that toll lanes are something we can get rid of.”

Under the emergency rule enacted by commissioners, the I-405 express toll lanes only will operate on weekdays between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. All vehicles will be permitted to travel for no charge weekday nights, and on weekends and six federal holidays.

When tolling is turned off, overhead signs will read “Open to all” on the 17-mile stretch of I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood. A Good To Go! Pass will not be required nor will requirements for a carpool be in effect.

Even when the lanes are free, drivers will need to use the designated access points to legally cross into the carpool lanes. Crossing the double white lines will still get drivers a ticket, state transportation officials said.

The decision to end tolling during off-peak hours is a response to frustrated drivers who’ve encountered longer than expected commutes since the express lanes opened in September.

Department of Transportation data show some drivers and bus riders are enjoying faster travel heading south and getting in and out of Bellevue. But the northbound afternoon commute through Bothell is enduring greater congestion than before the lanes opened.

Fans of toll lanes would argue for more tolls, not less.

If the state does it right, I-405 will be just one major piece of a regional tolling network that “sort of blankets the whole freeway system,” says Robert Poole, a longtime tolling proponent who has helped father many express toll lane projects. The Reason Foundation fellow served on an expert panel that vetted the DOT’s plans for I-405 in 2010.

“They really ought to explicitly commit to a seamless network of toll lanes, so it both serves plagued motorists when they need it and also facilitates express bus service and makes it faster and more reliable than it is today,” Poole said.

In her letter, Munkers acknowledged the “strong sentiment” of those who’ve signed a petition to get rid of the express toll lanes then cited the tens of thousands of drivers using them every day as a “strong statement” because they are not forced to use the lanes, “but choose to do so of their own volition.”

Community Transit and Sound Transit buses traveling on I-405 shaved as much as 9 percent off their average travel times in October and November last year, according to figures provided by the district. Some buses reached their destinations as much as 16 minutes faster using the express toll lanes, Munguia said.

With faster travel and the state collecting more revenue than anticipated, Munkers concluded “early returns” suggest the toll lanes are working.

Now, as tolls are lifted, Community Transit is concerned with the potential effect on service, particularly buses running between Lynnwood and Bellevue on Saturdays. Community Transit operates service between the communities under a contract with Sound Transit.

Buses run hourly on Route 535. Traffic in the toll lanes has been light Saturday and the worry is if the lanes clog up with cars, it could make for longer trips.

The state Transportation Commission is in the process of permanently changing the rules for tolling in the corridor. Commissioners are expected to hold a public hearing May 17 in advance of acting in June or July.

Community Transit could make its case again but no decision has been made on whether to do so, Munguia said Thursday.

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, chairman of the Community Transit Board of Directors, said he’d like board members to discuss the matter prior to that hearing.

“I recognize the right of the staff to weigh in on issues important to the operation of the district,” he said. “Because this has become the issue it has become, it’s also appropriate for the board to discuss it.”

Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson, one of the board’s newest members, said the voices of frustrated drivers and bus riders enjoying shorter trips need to be heard.

“It’s important that all of the commuters that travel that corridor have their concerns considered and balanced,” she said. Staff is “representing their riders. That’s their job.”

Herald writer Melissa Slager contributed to this report.

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

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