Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on I-405 on Feb. 16 near Bothell. (AP Photo/ElaineThompson)

Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on I-405 on Feb. 16 near Bothell. (AP Photo/ElaineThompson)

Tolling on I-405 hits one year — and, increasingly, its $10 max

LYNNWOOD — The state marks one year of tolling in the I-405 express lanes Tuesday.

Is the drive better? That depends on who you talk to.

One thing’s certain: The state’s making money.

More than 1 million people have made 12 million trips in the express toll lanes. One in eight of all vehicles in Washington state have touched rubber to that strip of roadway.

A year ago, the state was planning to break even on operations costs. Now, even after switching to “open to all” hours on nights and weekends, the one-year forecast pins revenue at $20 million.

“The lanes were more popular than we were planning,” said Tyler Patterson, operations manager with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

A $10 maximum toll is now common on rate signs. WSDOT staff anticipate eventually having to ask the Washington State Transportation Commission to raise the ceiling on tolls.

“I’m really happy with how well it’s going. … People are saving time. Trips are more reliable, both general purpose and express toll lanes,” Patterson said.

Measures of success, however, are only taken across the whole 17-mile corridor from Lynnwood to Bellevue. And the project didn’t just add tolls, but expanded capacity with an additional lane of toll-lane travel in both directions of I-405 south of Highway 522.

Success for the project is not necessarily success for all.

One year in, many drivers from Snohomish County still complain.

“The information provided to the public from WSDOT is not at all representative of the actual conditions, at least for my commute,” said Kevin Crowe, of Everett, who drives south on I-405 to take his son to school in Woodinville before heading to his job at Boeing.

Crowe said he and his son leave earlier in the mornings now, but the commute post-tolling has become unpredictable, causing them to arrive a little late at least once a week. He said he’s grateful school staff understand.

“For me the experience is flat-out horrendous, but I’m aware that it has had a positive impact on others,” Crowe added.

Readers who responded to a Street Smarts question about I-405 driving experiences (see page A3) were about evenly split on whether their drive is quicker or longer than before tolls.

“I think the 75 cents I pay is worth the 10 minutes I usually save using the double toll lanes,” said Don Rausch, of Everett, who waits to enter the toll lanes until they go up to two and start flowing better. He works in Bellevue. “I have paid the higher toll a few times when I was late to an appointment, and I did arrive earlier than I would have without being in the toll lane.”

Election year issue

Various state leaders have said they are committed to seeing the I-405 tolling project through its first two years. So far, the project is meeting its two requirements to continue: to pay for its own operating costs, and to maintain 45 mph speeds in the toll lanes at least 90 percent of the time (a metric that only looks at the entire 17-mile corridor).

That’s not stopping Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, from drafting a bill to remove the tolls. His proposal would convert one lane in each direction back to two-plus carpool lanes.

“The ultimate goal is congestion relief for the corridor. Nothing really has changed since they launched,” he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who is seeking re-election, acknowledged “the results have been mixed.”

However, users of the toll lanes, especially bus riders, are getting to their destinations faster, he said.

“There are still people on the equity side of this that still don’t like the idea of tolling period, and those folks are going to have those opinions,” Inslee added. “We’ll listen to those arguments at the end of two years and see what the numbers show. But right now I would not advocate getting rid of them right now from the information that we have today.”

Bill Bryant, the Republican candidate for governor, said he supports removing the tolls.

“The 405 toll lanes work well if you want to spend $8 to $20 a day getting to work and getting home,” he said. “But if you don’t want to spend $8 to $20 a day then you are stuck in bumper-to-brake light traffic.”

On the backs of north-end drivers?

Traffic flow has improved in several parts of the corridor thanks to that extra lane the state added. But the expansion in the south end only exacerbated an existing bottleneck at the north end, where now five lanes go down to three near Highway 522. The toll lanes also go down, from two lanes to one, creating a kind of mini-bottleneck on top of that.

As a result, the northbound evening commute at the north end is more sluggish than pre-tolling days.

And toll rates follow.

Anne Hagel, of Everett, is a regular I-405 toll lane user. In one week this month, she spent $71.25 in tolls. That included the maximum $10 toll three times.

Over the past year of tolling, she’s started to pay more to get home later. And still her morning commute, to Microsoft’s Redmond campus, takes 15 to 30 minutes longer than her carpool lane days.

“Effectively, this is an extreme tax on Snohomish County residents that benefits non-Snohomish County areas,” Hagel said.

There is no good data yet that breaks down where toll revenue is generated, though north-end drivers certainly pay their fair share.

Double-digit toll rates are more likely to appear on signs for the single-toll lane sections of the corridor.

About four in 10 express toll lane users enter from Snohomish County.

And in a WSDOT survey of more than 19,000 Good To Go account holders last April, over half said they travel the Lynnwood-to-Bothell segment. Three-quarters said they traveled the Bothell-to-Kirkland segment.

Improvements coming

“The intent is not to disadvantage one section over another,” Patterson said. “Demand has outstripped capacity faster than in other areas.”

Some relief is on the way.

Shoulder driving will be added to northbound I-405 between Highway 527 and I-5 next summer — one year sooner than planned, thanks to the more rapid pace of toll revenue.

Other long-term improvements include adding a second toll lane in that section and a direct-access ramp to Highway 522. Those are expected to cost around $570 million and are years away.

Show me the money

And money is the point. I-405 isn’t the only spot with unfunded needs.

Completely erasing congestion isn’t possible. Neither is making everyone happy. Toll lanes are the best solution to a mediocre situation, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.

He draws a football analogy.

“For the Seahawks, more people want to see the games than there are seats. Thus the price goes up, because there is value to be obtained from that price. For the Seahawks, that means there is more money to buy better players and coaches,” Hallenbeck said. “For I-405, that means there is money to help pay for widening the road or supplying buses that can use the road.”

Already, the next $200 million in toll revenue is earmarked to expand tolling down I-405 to hook up with other toll lanes on Highway 167 near Renton. Hallenbeck foresees tolls eventually expanding to I-5.

Hiccups in the state’s planning and communication on the I-405 project “really hurt that momentum.” But opening up the lanes to all on nights and weekends has tempered anger.

The toll lanes are doing what they should, he said.

“You can sit in congestion for free, or you can buy your way out of it and we’ll use that money for other good purposes,” he said. “And in that perspective, 405 is working just fine.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.

Melissa Slager: 425-339-3432; mslager@heraldnet.com.

By the numbers

$4 or less: The amount 80 percent of toll lane drivers pay to use the lanes

$2.72: Average toll during peak hours in peak directions

$1.93: Average toll including non-peak hours

30%: Drivers declaring they meet carpool requirements to travel toll-free (peak and non-peak hours)

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