Problems ahead for I-405 HOV/toll lanes

On Sept. 27, the state Department of Transportation will begin the implementation of the new I-405 tolling.

Tolls in the High Occupancy Toll lanes will range from 75 cents to $10 per trip, and that’s if you have a flex pass attached to your vehicle. It’s even more costly if you don’t. According to the Transportation Department, the basic strategy is to implement a user-based fee structure to offset the capital infrastructure expenses needed to reduce increased commute times. Let’s set aside the discussion that the state is only collecting 30 cents out of every dollar and the rest goes to the tolling vender in Texas. Instead, let’s focus on enforcement.

Prior to pulling the trigger on this controversial project, it is doomed from the start. The enforcement strategies that the state is counting on to attain compliance have already been tried on Highway 167 and been proven ridiculously ineffective. The ongoing political power struggle between the state Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol have resulted in a catastrophic waste of tax payer dollars. As the 900-pound gorilla in state government, the transportation agency simply does not like being told what does and doesn’t work.

The State Patrol requested years ago to participate in the planning stages of the enforcement piece on this project and were rebuffed by transportation officials. The agency’s assertions that the enforcement component on Higway 167 have proven effective are laughable. On the Highway 167 project, $1 million dollars were set aside to pay for one trooper each “rush hour” overtime to enforce the entire “Good to Go” project. This included HOV enforcement and vehicles entering and exiting the HOV/toll lane in unauthorized locations, or bypassing the enforcement cameras. Given the fact that there are little or no shoulders on Highway 167, troopers could not determine which vehicles were legitimate HOV/Toll users. Additionally, given the volumes of traffic in the right two lanes, it was an impossible task to safely conduct a traffic stop on the right shoulder. Troopers quickly gave up and focused on other violations while being paid overtime to enforce this tolling project. Resulting in zero “Good-to-Go” enforcement on this toll highway.

These concerns were raised with Transportation Department on the I-405 project early on. The state again informed the State Patrol that its engineers were on top of it. This tolling project has $3 million set aside for troopers to conduct overtime emphasis patrols on the same enforcement criteria. However, these HOV/Toll lanes will at times require 3 or more occupants, have a different color 2-inch flex pass visible on the front windshield, and will be guaranteed a speed of 45 mph. Still with little or no shoulders available on which to safely conduct a traffic stop. Simply throwing more tax dollars at it for overtime enforcement does not improve a bad design.

Set aside the fact that if a vehicles windows are tinted and the flex pass displays the HOV mode, any visibility into the vehicle to verify the actual number of occupants is impossible. The enforcement component on this project will simply not work.

So when the state asserts that this system is failing to produce the desired results because of a lack of enforcement, you will know the rest of this story.

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.”

Jeff Merrill is president of the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association.

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