Toll lane foes vent frustrations at state Senate hearing

Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on Interstate 405 in Bothell. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

OLYMPIA — Opposing forces collided Wednesday when a state Senate panel considered a bill to get rid of the express toll lanes on I-405.

Opponents, including two Snohomish County lawmakers, told the Senate Transportation Committee that many drivers are spending too much of their valuable time and money to use the lanes and not getting any smoother travel as promised.

“We the citizens are fed wonderful stories of success,” said Janet Nelson of Bellevue. “Toll lanes are not helping the congestion. Take the tolls off.”

Supporters countered that commuters and bus riders are enjoying slightly faster travel times throughout much of the 17-mile corridor since the lanes opened 17 months ago.

“It is our hope that you continue the HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes,” said Michael Shaw of the Washington State Transit Association. “It helps make a congested corridor better.”

Wednesday’s hearing was on Senate Bill 5707 that would get rid of the express toll lanes by converting them into either a general purpose lane or a traditional lane for carpools and buses. Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, is the prime sponsor and two senators from Snohomish County, Democrat Guy Palumbo of Maltby and Republican Kirk Pearson of Monroe, are co-sponsors.

Palumbo told the committee he can afford to pay the tolls but many of his constituents can not. He also said getting rid of the toll lanes was a hotter topic than education funding when he campaigned in the 1st Legislative District last year.

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, introduced the same bill in the House but it has not received a hearing.

He attended the Senate hearing and told lawmakers removing the tolls would give drivers use of a general purpose lane for which they’ve already paid.

Harmsworth also raised concerns that the state Department of Transportation will try to sell bonds and repay them with the stream of toll revenue, which he opposes.

The lanes were opened Sept. 27, 2015, as a two-year experiment. Today there are two express toll lanes in each direction between NE 6th Street in Bellevue and Highway 522 in Bothell, and one lane in each direction from that point to Lynnwood.

At the end of the trial period, the fate of the toll lanes will be tied to meeting two standards spelled out in the law: Are the lanes generating enough money to pay for themselves and are vehicles averaging 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time in those lanes during daily commutes.

Profitability isn’t a problem as higher than predicted use has brought in millions of more dollars than anticipated. And the speed standard had been met in the first few months of the toll lane operation.

But since late 2016, traffic within the lanes was moving at 45 mph or faster only 85 percent of the time, according to DOT reports.

Patty Rubstello, assistant secretary for the Department of Transportation, told lawmakers Wednesday that drivers in the toll lanes are saving as much as 5 minutes compared to when there was only a carpool lane. Bus ridership is up, too, she said.

However, traffic still clogs up daily on northbound I-405 in Bothell where five lanes reduce to three near Highway 522. A project allowing vehicles to use the shoulder when traffic is heavily congested should be done this spring, she said. “The majority of drivers are benefiting from these lanes,” she said.

But a parade of King County residents and business leaders disputed that. Several complained city streets are becoming clogged by cars diverting from the freeway through their neighborhoods.

“Almost everybody I talk to has been negatively affected,” said Jeff Lykken, of Renton. “My neighbors and I are going to fight the toll lanes.”

While the hearing provided critics an opportunity to vent, it’s unlikely this bill will advance much further.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the committee chairman, announced in January he is opposed to ending the tolling before the trial period expires this fall. He reiterated that position after Wednesday’s hearing.

“I have publicly said that I would give them two years to evaluate the success of these toll lanes,” he said. “I plan to keep my word.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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