OLYMPIA — It looks like tolling will be coming to a 40-mile stretch of highway between Bellevue and Puyallup, and Snohomish County commuters could reap the benefits.
A bill giving the state Department of Transportation authority to construct express toll lanes on the south half of I-405 and on Highway 167 has cleared the Senate and awaits action in the House on Sunday, the final day of the legislative session.
The legislation also directs the agency to issue $1.5 billion in bonds, to be repaid with future toll revenues, and use the money to carry out projects, including a big one to unclog a choke point on the north end of I-405 in Bothell.
It earmarks $600 million to design and construct improvements including a second toll lane on I-405 between highways 522 and 527, a direct access ramp from Highway 522 onto the express toll lanes, and direct-access ramps at a rebuilt Highway 527 interchange. Those ramps are counted on being in place by 2024 when new bus rapid transit service comes online.
Originally, Senate Bill 5825 only authorized connecting express toll lanes on I-405 with existing High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on Highway 167. But some lawmakers in Snohomish, Pierce and King counties insisted the toll revenue be bonded to get congestion-relief projects in their communities completed.
Without bonding, the state can only do projects for which it has money in hand. That’s the situation for the existing I-405 toll lanes between Lynnwood and Bellevue.
“South Snohomish County was in a very bad spot last week,” said Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby. Absent bonding, Snohomish County residents “would continue to pay tolls in perpetuity, but the revenue would be sent to Renton and Bellevue for their new lanes while giving the north end nothing.
“Nobody likes tolls, including me. I tried and failed to repeal them twice,” he said. “We now are going to get $600 million of new investment in our community to reduce traffic congestion and allow people to spend more time with their families.”
The bill passed the Senate on a 30-18 vote late Thursday. Saturday morning, the House Transportation Committee made a few changes and advanced it.
Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, who serves on the committee and represents the same legislative district as Palumbo, supported the bill. She said prior to the vote that she has been pushing for bonding in order to finance the Bothell-area improvements.
“It’s been a concerted effort,” she said. “If we really take a look at the options on the table and the projects that we need to do, this is the best chance to get them done.”
Democratic Rep. Jared Mead, of Mill Creek, voted against it in committee. He said it was not an easy decision but he did so on behalf of constituents who dislike the tolls and find themselves facing the maximum $10 rate if they want to use the lanes in commute hours.
“We’re hit the hardest,” he said.
Republican Rep. Carolyn Eslick, of Sultan, also opposed the bill in committee.
She indicated Friday her focus this session is speeding up a planned widening of Highway 522 near Monroe where the four-lane highway is reduced to two lanes for a three-mile stretch.
There is $10 million pledged for preliminary design but the money does not become available until 2025 and does not cover final project design, environmental work, right-of-way acquisition and construction.
“I’m holding out for the widening,” she said. “The hourglass needs to be fixed.”
Palumbo said he’s working to advance funding as well. It was in a proposal for a transportation package along the lines of what the Legislature passed in 2015. But the measure didn’t survive.
“We’re doing the best we can without a new transportation package,” he said.
Today is the state Legislature’s last day of regular session. Lawmakers have until midnight to act on a new state budget and assorted policy and tax bills. If they don’t finish, the governor could call them back for a special session lasting up to 30 days.