Vows to end I-405 tolls: Was it all just campaign talk?

OLYMPIA — Eliminating the express toll lanes on I-405 was a popular pledge of candidates on the campaign trail in Snohomish County.

Well, it’s not going to happen. At least not this year.

Leaders of the state House and Senate transportation committees say they won’t move any bills to end tolling between Bellevue and Lynnwood this session.

“We’re not going to look at them,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.

And she’s already thinking about making the toll lanes permanent in 2018. The state would then be in position to sell bonds and use the stream of toll revenue to cover the long-term debt payments required for major congestion-easing projects eyed in the 17-mile corridor.

“It will be the only unallocated source of revenue generated in the state,” she said.

Her counterpart in the Senate isn’t talking about bonding the money but is on board with keeping the lanes operating now.

“We had a plan. Everybody agreed to it. Let’s just stick to the plan, see what the results are and then we can have the discussion as to whether it was a good thing or not,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

That “plan” is the legislation which created the toll lanes as a two-year pilot project. The experiment period is scheduled to end in September.

The legislation also prescribed two standards be met for the toll lanes to be maintained. First, they needed to generate enough money to pay for themselves, and second, vehicles using the lanes must average 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time during daily commutes.

Profitability isn’t a problem as higher than predicted use has led to greater than estimated receipts. But the speed standard, which had been met in the first few months of operation, was not achieved in the latter half of 2016. Traffic within the lanes was moving at 45 mph or faster only 85 percent of the time, Department of Transportation officials told lawmakers in December.

King, who is aware of the situation, is reserving judgment until the full two-year period is complete.

“We’re talking about another eight or nine months and we’ll know,” he said. “If we cut them off now they’ll say that we didn’t give them enough time.”

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, the Legislature’s most vocal critic of the express toll lanes, introduced a bill to remove the tolls and convert one lane in each direction back to two-plus carpool lanes. Clibborn told him earlier in the session it wouldn’t get a hearing, he said.

“We’ve sat down and talked,” said Harmsworth, who serves on the transportation panel. “I’m not giving up. I haven’t changed my opinion on what needs to happen. I’m here to fix the problem.”

Snohomish County is where one of the most persistent challenges exists. Since tolling began in September 2015, the state says traffic flow has improved in the corridor thanks to an extra lane the state added between Bothell and Bellevue.

But it’s not better everywhere. It’s actually gotten worse on northbound I-405 in Bothell. Traffic bottles up where five lanes reduce to three near Highway 522.

In the short term, the state is spending $7.29 million to harden the shoulder on northbound I-405. Work is under way and when finished vehicles and buses will be able to use the right shoulder between Highway 527 and I-5 as an additional general-purpose lane in times with the heaviest congestion. Overhead signs will alert drivers to when the lane is open to traffic.

In the long-term, the state wants to add an express toll lane in each direction from Highway 522 to Highway 527 and construct a new interchange to provide direct access from Highway 522. Together, the projects would cost an estimated $450 million, according to the December presentation by DOT officials.

The state also is looking at the potential of directly connecting a northbound toll lane with northbound I-5 in Lynnwood and another connection from the carpool lane on southbound I-5 to a toll lane on southbound I-405. Those could cost another $250 million to carry out.

With no pot of state money to tap, bonding toll revenues looms as the best potential financing mechanism, Clibborn said.

“We have to look at it all next year,” she said.

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

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