Toll-lane cheating, explained

A commentary by Washington State Patrol Trooper Jeff Merrill that was published in Friday’s Herald claimed enforcement of the new toll lanes on I-405 is doomed before it even starts.

He claims similar enforcement during the launch of tolling on Highway 167 in Renton was a bust, and the steps necessary to catch violators on the much busier I-405 “will simply not work.”

He even offers advice: “So, if you want to expedite your morning commute on I-405, tint your windows, set your flex pass to HOV and you will truly be ‘Good-To-Go.’”

Merrill is president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association.

His bosses and folks at the Washington State Department of Transportation were quick to respond.

“Many of the opinions contained within that email are untrue and do not reflect our partnership and coordination with WSP on this project,” said Ethan Bergerson, a WSDOT spokesperson. “We worked closely with WSP to determine the design and location of WSP vehicle pullouts and other facility needs for their important safety and enforcement work.”

Capt. Monica Alexander with Washington State Patrol agreed.

She added that officers working overtime at the start of tolling do so voluntarily and that the focus on the opening day of tolling will be on education.

“People violate a lot of the traffic laws out there, and our job is trying to help them understand the importance of compliance and why the laws are on the books,” Alexander said. “What it all boils down to is safety — helping people get from Point A to Point B safely and efficiently. And there are people not just here but at WSDOT trying to do that.”

In an earlier interview, WSDOT Assistant Secretary for Tolling Craig Stone said the current carpool lane violation rate near Everett is 1 percent of traffic.

“So we have actually a really good compliance rate already in this area,” Stone said.

That said, there is a lot going on during rush hour that can pull troopers away from violation enforcement day-to-day, such as collisions, Alexander said.

Tolling starts Sept. 27 on what are now HOV lanes on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue.

The specific concern here is over drivers who may improperly use a Flex Pass switched to “HOV” mode. The Flex Pass allows a driver to travel the I-405 express lanes for free if they meet carpool requirements (three people or more in the vehicle during peak commute times weekdays, two people or more all other times).

To aid enforcement, the pass appears red out the windshield when switched to HOV mode. A beacon also flashes from tolling equipment when a car in HOV mode passes underneath.

In the end, tolling cuts both ways when it comes to enforcement.

Tolls complicate enforcement compared to traditional carpool requirements since single drivers and two-person vehicles can use the express toll lanes for a fee. Simple visual inspection is not enough.

But electronic tolling also can aid enforcement, since would-be violators will get a bill in the mail if they don’t shell out some money initially to get the equipment necessary for toll-free travel.

(On a related note, the candy-bar sized Flex Pass can be removed from its mount and stored when not driving in order to discourage theft. Sticker passes are one-time use and difficult to remove.)

Double white lines mark off toll lanes except at access points, which also would highlight those trying to cheat the system.

And then there are “heroes” not in uniform.

As with HOV lanes, other drivers can report express toll lane violators by calling 877-764-HERO.

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