Following a two-year trial period, state officials will decide whether to end the express toll lanes on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue, expand the program south or end it. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson/Associated Press file photo)

Following a two-year trial period, state officials will decide whether to end the express toll lanes on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue, expand the program south or end it. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson/Associated Press file photo)

Tossing I-405’s toll lanes could make things worse

Editorial: Removing the toll lanes and discouraging transit use could add to the congestion for all.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s understandable that many motorists weren’t in the mood to throw a party for the second birthday of express lane tolling on I-405, especially during those times when traffic in the general purpose lanes slows to the speed of an average toddler.

But that second anniversary marks the end of a two-year trial run for the lanes and other improvements to I-405 between I-5 and Bellevue, an analysis of which will be considered by the Legislature as it decides whether to remove express lane tolling or maintain the lanes and tolls, and possibly expand the program to cover a 40-mile corridor of I-405 and Highway 167 between Lynnwood and Pacific, south of Auburn.

Staffers with the state Department of Transportation are compiling the last few months of data for the project and preparing a report that will join earlier quarterly reports to aid lawmakers in their decision.

Some, including Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the ranking Democrat on the committee, are reserving judgment until the reports are complete and the legislative session begins in January, The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield wrote in a Sept. 25 story.

Others, including Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, have already made up their minds that the program is a bust, isn’t meeting its benchmarks and should be scrapped. But Harmsworth was ready to toss the program as early as a year ago, and drafted legislation to that effect in 2016, even before the two-year pilot program was complete and the data were in.

It was too soon then to end the interstate’s express lane tolling, and it’s too soon now. Judged by the information now available, it appears the toll lanes are meeting or close to meeting the requirements set by the Legislature.

During peak travel times the express toll lanes are open to transit, car pools with three or more occupants and those willing to pay a sliding toll fee, between 75 cents and $10 that is adjusted based on traffic volumes. As more vehicles enter the lanes, the toll rises. On average, that toll is between $2 and $3, with 71 percent of peak commute tolls less than $4. Tolls of $8 or more are charged about 11 percent of the time.

The program had two main benchmarks to meet. It is required to provide enough revenue for its maintenance and operation, leaving the balance to fund improvement projects. And it has to ensure speeds in the toll lanes of 45 mph or better 90 percent of the time.

During the program’s first 21 months, Department of Transportation figures show, it has generated $38.6 million in revenue against $13.6 million in operational costs. That’s left $25 million for improvements, $11.5 million of which was used to fund the addition of peak-use shoulder lanes that have added to general purpose capacity on northbound I-405 between Highway 522 and I-5.

On commute times, all toll lanes are meeting that 45 mph mark 81 percent of the time. That’s not 90 percent, but sections of I-405 with two toll lanes are at 93 percent, while all sections with a single lane are at 72 percent. And where the northbound shoulder lane was added, the section’s single lane is also exceeding the 90 percent mark. Even while not hitting the overall mark, northbound toll lane traffic is moving 23 mph faster than the general lanes, and 19 miles per hour faster in the southbound toll lanes.

Two points provide more context to those numbers. Population growth in the region has only added to the traffic. Since the lanes were added, Snohomish and King counties have added 148,000 licensed drivers. And the toll lanes have improved commute times for transit. Commuters riding Community Transit and Metro buses are saving up to 10 minutes on their commute times, and that reliability has resulted in a 5 percent increase in ridership.

Ensuring that reliability for transit schedules has been a priority for the Department of Transportation, said Director of Tolling Ed Barry. Every rider on those buses — and in car pools — is one less vehicle in the general purpose lanes.

Removing the toll lanes and returning I-405 to its pre-2015 configuration could prove costly financially and in terms of commute time for all drivers.

Removing the tolling equipment and restriping I-405 is estimated to cost about $13 million, money that the Legislature would have to approve from general transportation funding that could go to other transportation projects.

Adding to congestion in non-tolled HOV lanes will also mean less reliability and longer commutes for transit riders and, likely, more bus riders and car-poolers going back to driving solo, adding to congestion in the general purpose lanes and making commutes even longer. Before the toll lanes were added, the HOV lanes were reaching speeds of 45 mph or greater only 62 percent of the time.

And the end of tolling would also end the stream of dedicated revenue that has and would continue to fund improvements on I-405 that benefit all drivers, such as the shoulder lane. Remove tolling, and projects to improve the flow of traffic on I-405 would have to get in line with every other transportation project in the state.

The express toll lanes may not be the perfect solution — and sitting in a bumper-to-bumper general purpose lane it can he hard to view it as such — but as we continue to add people, jobs and drivers to the region, lawmakers will have to carefully consider whether the toll lanes have kept things from getting even worse.

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