With express tolls set to start on I-405, state still big on carpools

Will we still carpool when the carpool lane as we know it is gone?

Express toll lanes will replace the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-405 from Lynnwood to Bellevue starting Sept. 27.

Trends in other states show carpooling often goes down when toll signs go up over “the fast lane.” The I-405 commute could face a double-whammy, with more people and special transponders required for those who want to drive free.

The Washington State Department of Transportation is taking steps to prevent a dip, as well as to soothe the angst that comes with the changes.

So far, 11,000 people have signed up for a free Flex Pass under a carpool incentive program. The transponder is required for carpools, with a switch to toggle when a car qualifies to travel free instead of paying the posted toll rate.

“We won’t know the effect on carpools until they open,” said Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation. But the toll lanes, as designed, “will give everyone — carpools, non-carpools, vanpools, and thousands of passengers using transit — the option for a reliable trip.”

Now that there’s a deadline of sorts with the announced start of tolling, some folks are stepping up efforts to adjust to the changes.

Sheryl Grover of Everett commutes to Renton to work at Boeing. She’s already part of a three-person carpool. But with personal schedules that often make them a two-person carpool — or no carpool at all — they’re looking for a fourth person willing to buddy up and improve their chances of driving the toll lanes for free each workday.

“We’re going to have to get more serious about it. And I think other people will, too,” Grover said.

Boeing is among several area businesses that encourage carpools, vanpools and transit through the Orca Business Passport program. Others include the city of Everett, Edmonds Community College, Philips Healthcare.

The program includes six emergency taxi rides home per year for employees at participating companies, something Grover’s carpool partners have used in the past when the inevitable late meeting kept the driver at work late.

The assistance and incentives are great. But forming a carpool “is still not easy sometimes,” Grover said.

More than one-third of Snohomish County workers have jobs outside the county, and of those 11.4 percent carpool, according to 2013 Census estimates. The vast majority did so with one other person. Only 2.3 percent of carpoolers were in vehicles with three or more occupants.

Local surveys show Snohomish County drivers in particular like to go it alone.

Trends show our low gas prices also could stymie efforts to increase carpool, vanpool and transit use.

State and transit agencies hope the promise of reliable speeds of 45 mph or greater will push people to change.

“We’re looking forward to the prospect of our routes having a faster trip down the HOV lanes,” said Bruce Gray of Sound Transit, which operates the bulk of the bus rides in that corridor.

Many commuters remain skeptical.

“I’m not holding my breath,” said Tony Czaban, who commutes to Woodinville from Stanwood.

Czaban and his wife make up a two-person carpool. Their neighbor often joins them, but not always. On days where a carpool doesn’t work out, Czaban looks to Highway 9 or other back roads. But those routes are getting more clogged, too.

“If you see some guy screaming by the side of the road, that will be me,” he said, adding he’s trying to be “cautiously optimistic.”

Czaban said he’d consider paying a toll.

Janet Perkins, of Everett, said she’s unlikely to pay a toll on her commute to Bellevue if it hits the average the state expects. At $4 each way, that would work out to about $40 a week. “That’s not in my budget,” Perkins said. “For 17 miles, I guess I will just grin and bear it.”

Perkins carpools with a Boeing coworker. They were transferred to Bellevue from Everett last year.

“I feel like I take my life in my hands every day,” she said of the commute.

The women have fun coming up with ideas for reminding fellow drivers of texting-and-driving laws. They plan to keep carpooling, even if it’s just the two of them.

“It’s nice to have someone in the car with you … provided you get along, of course. Because you sure do get to know them very well,” Perkins said.

But if the commute doesn’t improve? Both Perkins and Czaban shared similar sentiments: They’ll start looking for jobs elsewhere.

Need a carpool?

The Washington State Department of Transportation will continue to hand out free Flex Pass transponders to qualified I-405 carpools while supplies last through a carpool incentive program on RideshareOnline.com. To ensure the pass’ arrival by the Sept. 27 launch of tolling on I-405, requests should be submitted by the end of August. The website also helps folks find carpool partners and sign up for vanpools.

More than one-third of the 130 Community Transit vanpools travel on I-405 and may have room for more passengers. In addition, 10 vans are available for new vanpools. Find out more by calling 888-814-1300.

Read more about carpooling and tolling.

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