Frank at Orphan Road caught the story (originally in the TNT) that the WSDOT High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane experiment on SR 167 has been utilized at about half of the expected volume; as a result, the project takes in less than what it costs to administer.

Go read Frank’s writeup.  Of course, one nice thing about these HOT lanes, regardless of utilization, is that it relieves pressure to widen the highway: drivers fed up with congestion have a faster alternative at a nominal cost.

The only other thing I’d add is that I’d imagine “Good to Go” pass distribution faces a lot of the same barriers as ORCA adoption; the bigger the HOT system is, the more accounts there are and the less “I don’t have a pass” becomes an excuse.

43 Replies to “SR167 HOT Lanes Underperforming”

  1. Some very interesting information about HOT lanes on I-405. SR-167 won’t stop WSDOT from moving forward with more projects. This is more about testing if the concept works, not necessary if this project makes money. And making money isn’t the purpose, managing traffic is the purpose and in that way it is succeeding.

    Things to note.

    – One lane operations makes it hard to pass slow cars. You are kind of “trapped” in the lane.
    – No travel time information for the HOT lanes is provided so drivers don’t know if they will save a lot of time.
    – Tolls are flat not distance based. This skews users towards towards long distance trips which are fewer.
    – With implementation of tolling on SR-520 next year the number of “Good to Go” tags will increase dramatically. I think they are expecting something like 80% of cars on the Eastside will have them. I would say that right now it is probably less than 5%.

    1. Technically speaking, all direct-access HOV ramps are in “testing”. FHWA only approved it under certain conditions because it comes in on the left side of the roadway, which can create traffic flow problems in some areas.

  2. how many years is the payback now?

    Also I thought the 520 bridge was going to use an automated system that just billed you every month or so, NOT the good to go system? Or will they use both?

    1. The system will utilize both Good-to-Go (prepaid accounts) and license plate billing. There won’t be a cash option.

    2. From my understanding you can drive across without a good to go sticker but you will be charged an extra processing fee as well as fines if you don’t pay within a certain period.

      1. Yeah I think they are trying to standardize everything which is a good move.

  3. Well, one problem I can see is the same as ORCA.
    It’s too damn confusing for a lot of citizens to screw around with.
    Knowing little or nothing about “Good to Go”, I fired up the WSDOT website to figure it out. After 5 minutes, I have more questions than they have pages of simple answers, such as:
    You need to buy a transponder for your car or motorcycle. They have four different rates for the device, depending on who you are and where you mount it ranging from several dollars to 27 bucks. Why not one device at one price?
    Carpoolers(2+, buses, and motorcycles) are not charged, Yet they have transponders for motorcycles and carpools. Huh??
    Entry and Exit of the lanes is retricted for Good to Go riders, but it’s ambiguous if that applies to exempt vehicles like buses.
    You have to load 30 bucks to start, and can’t go below 8 bucks in your account without autoloading more money. What’s with that.
    Anyway, the point is maybe the gatekeepers are too effective with their rule books.

    1. Transponders for carpools are required so that the system can recognize you as a carpool and not a violator. Most of the transaction functions are performed through a computer, so if you pass through the Good-to-Go lanes without a valid transponder, you’ll be considered a violator. This is why carpools are required to have a special transponder.

      1. That sounds like a terrible system. So even though it says 2+ no toll, you’ll still be charged even if you have 2+ people in your car? Is there any recourse for that? Plus, how do they know that if you buy the carpool transponder you’re actively carpooling that day?

        I’ve only been down 167 a couple times but I believe NONE of this is state on the sineage. All I remember is it says no toll for 2+ and then like $x.xx for good to go.

      2. I thought you could travel in the HOT lane as a carpool without a transponder. I haven’t read the rules recently, but I thought there was some RF shield you put over the transponder if you’re normally an SOV but are using the HOT lane as a carpool.

      3. No, for the HOT lanes the transponder is covered by a metallic shield. At the toll point which is a reader above the HOT lane and the left general purpose lane, there is a flashing white light visible to a State Patrol vehicle. Every time a vehicle WITH a transponder is read, the light goes on. If it does not, the vehicle does not have a transponder and the State Patrol needs to verify whether it is a motorcycle or carpool.

      4. I carpool in the 167 lanes frequently, don’t have a transponder and never get a ticket. Are you sure carpoolers have to have a transponder?

      5. If you are a carpool you do not need a transponder and if you do have a transponder and are carpooling you cover the transponder so it is not read by the system.

      6. OK, that makes sense, but to the bigger question I posed….
        The prosecution rests.

  4. What I find interesting is that even though the HOT lanes are taking in less money then they cost to operate, WSDOT is still planning to EXPAND them base on their observation that they have reduced congestion.

    Two questions come to mind:

    1) Where is WSDOT getting the funding to expand a program that is losing money? Given our current budget situation I’d expect money sinks like this to at least be put on the back-burner for awhile.

    2) How does WSDOT know that the HOT lanes have really reduced congestion? Congestion during the study period is down all over the region due to the economy, and VMT was actually declining prior to the recession, not to mention that Sounder is still setting ridership records.

    The case for more HOT lane expansion seems dubious at best.

    1. Even though the program costs more to operate than it is taking in perhaps it is considered more cost-effective than other ways of reducing congestion such as widening highways.

      I suspect the HOT lanes might see more use region-wide if the G2G transponders were more widespread which might happen with a wider program combined with tolling for the 99 tunnel and 520 bridge.

    2. lazaras,

      I am not aware of any WSDOT projects that make money (bridge tolls help cover some or most of the cost of bridges, but don’t make money). WSDOT is not a business, it is the government. Their job is to spend the people’s money, hopely for worthwhile project that benefit the paying public.

  5. The ST 566 Express can’t even use these lanes. To me, that says it all about what they’re worth.

    Mark Dublin

      1. Neither, it uses the lane all the time from the South 180th entry point to Renton and vise versa

  6. As a Good To Go user, I am more than happy to pay the minimal amount of money. For one, I was glad not to deal with the random slowdowns on SR167. I just wish it extended to the end of the freeway.

    Since I have been using Good to Go, I easily save 10 minutes one way in my commute. I look forward to the day when it is applied to I-405 and SR-520. Overall, I only use between $10 to $20 a month for usage of the HOT lanes.

    The way it works is quite simple. If you are a solo driver, you use the transponder. Each of the entry points have a reader with a strobe that confirms that your transponder is working correctly and the amount has been deducted from your account. You are only charged ONCE, at the first entry/transponder reader you go under. The transponder reader will flash at each checkpoint but again, you will not be charged again.

    If you have 2+ HOV, it is free for those users. If the user has a G2G transponder, they need to get the RF shield plate that goes over the transponder so you are not charged a fee.

    Motorcycles DO NOT have to have a transponder for any of the freeway/state rout HOV lanes.

    The transponder IS required for motorcyclist if you are using the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and don’t want to stop and pay cash. My solution to that, along with other cyclist is to have a the transponder stickied with double sided tape so it is removable and thus not charged when using SR-167. Some riders simply hold the transponder up as they go under the reader and put it back in their tank bag.

    As for buses that use the HOT lanes, I always see the ST 566 and deadheading coaches use the lanes all the time. Some of those are probably the fastest of the drivers in the HOT lanes too.

  7. Just as Frank notes, there is a huge psychological barrier for users to try something unfree where the rest of the options are free in this region. Also, people hate tolls. Just look at the Narrows Bridge where people come out in droves to protest toll increases.

    This seems to be quite troubling for not only WSDOT, but also the region which is planned to depend heavily on toll revenues for a $19.5 billion expansion of highways over the next 10 years.

    1. I think the question should be.. should we tax more or resort to toll/user fees?

      People will hate taxes and people will hate tolls, so where do we draw the line?

      1. Count me as someone who is for tolling SOV drivers as much as possible. Raising the cost of driving alone is one of the best ways of both reducing congestion and getting people to try alternatives like carpooling or public transit.

    2. I think it is a bit premature to make conclusion. Once 520 starts I think we will have a much better idea of the future of tolling.

      1. Also, the lack of having a G2G center on this side of the water sucks. I drove out to Gig Harbor to get my transponder… could have done it online but I wanted to ask questions so I fully understood how the program works.

        I was hoping that they would open one in Kent/Renton area but alas, that has yet to happen yet. Supposedly they are going to open a new center on this site for SR-520 but not sure where at this time.

  8. It’s probably in part due to the confusion their signage evokes for all but the technically savvy, regular user of that stretch of highway, along with the confusion of what the rules are, how to enter and exit, etc. It’s a threshold not too unlike automated teller machines, smart phones, the Internet, etc. amongst those who have been overmatched by the technological upswings in those areas. It’s simpler just to stay with the “known.”

    1. I would hope by now most people are comfortable with the concept of automated teller machines. Though I’ve been in line with people who seem to have some problem with the concept. For example those who check their balance multiple times expecting they will get a different answer if they just keep checking.

  9. This doesn’t surprise me at all. The algorithm or whatever didn’t seem to be the best. Traffic would be mostly free and clear and yet they would show a charge of like $1.75. It didn’t seem all that consistent. When the freeway is empty the base charge is $0.50. It only seemed like when there was very heavy traffic would it be worth it at all, which in a way I guess is the point.

    It didn’t seem to me that 167 was the best candidate for this because it wasn’t reliably jam-packed. This seems best for a stretch of highway which ALWAYS has heavy stop-and-go traffic. The stretch of 405 south of Bellevue comes to mind. 520 too, but I suppose the outright tolling there should help matters.

    A friend of mine who lives that way though would use the HOT pricing as a tip to use the W Valley Highway instead. If it’s over $2.50, she knew to avoid 167 and find an alternative route. Would folks here also consider that behavior a “success” even though this didn’t produce any additional revenue?

    1. I few points. I worked at the Traffic Management Center when the HOT lanes were first installed. The algorithm calculates the cost using the most congested portion of the corridor. For NB this means that the south end might be wide open but the since the north end is congested the prices are higher.

      SR-167 was chosen because the HOV lanes were underutilized. Most of the other HOV lanes in the region are failing their performance goals so letting in more traffic doesn’t make sense. This also gets to the heart of why the HOT lanes are being tested. HOV lanes are over capacity and either need to be changed to HOV 3+ or a second HOV lane needs to be added. Neither of these are very politically popular and both mean that the HOV lanes would be underutilized. By allowing in paying SOVs this makes either 3+ operations or taking a GP lane more likely.

      And to your last question yes although I believe there is travel time information available as well.

  10. the bigger the HOT system is, the more accounts there are and the less “I don’t have a pass” becomes an excuse.

    I think that’s the big barrier. The transponders cost money and take some effort to get. The only place they’re used is the Narrows Bridge and 167. Anyone commuting regularly across the Narrows would be foolish not to get one because it saves time (sometimes a considerable amount of time) over paying at the toll booth and it’s a discounted toll to boot. Once the system is adopted for 520 there will be a whole lot more people that get transponders. 405 from Renton all the way to Mill Creek would be a great place to expand the system. Likewise for the new HOV lanes being built in Tacoma. It could also be used to implement a congestion fee in parts of DT Seattle (or Bellevue for that matter). How about automated charging for P&R lots that are at capacity? Since the transponder is tied to a billable account it could also be used to control who uses a lot by how much they’re charged; I’m thinking of Mercer Island and South Bellevue specifically.

  11. Interesting factoid: at April’s Kitsap Transit board meeting, during the discussion of paper passes and ORCA cards, now-disgraced commissioner/PSRC rep/Port Orchard mayor Lary Coppola stated that he hoped ORCA would become the defacto transportation card in the state, so that it could also be accepted on, among other things, toll projects. I believe he specifically mentioned HOT lanes. Since it appears the legislature expected ORCA cards would be used at toll booths, and from toll booths to transponder adapters is a very short step, it’ll be interesting to see if it ever happens. The more ORCA cards the merrier!

  12. I view the HOT lanes as the states getting the public used to paying for formally “free”-ways, with the full intention of gradually instituting congestion pricing over time. This incremental appraoch can soften the psychological blow. I do very much support congestion pricing now, but the vast majority doesn’t.

  13. Sorry for the stupid question. But could someone explain the difference between Wave to Go and G2G? I know Wave to Go is a ferry thing but why is it different?

    1. Even though they’re two entirely separate systems designed for entirely different purposes, somebody at WSDOT apparently got a serious case of the naming cutes, so it can definitely be confusing if you’re not a regular user of one or both systems. (Imagine how this comes across to visitors to the region!) Wave2Go is a barcoded ticketing system for the WSF. Tickets are physically scanned at the toll gate/booth (it’s similar to the process used for retail purchases), and the ticket can be single use or configured as a pass. Good To Go! is an electronic toll system that uses transponders that store value, kind of like the ORCA card’s e-purse. The transponder is mounted to the inside of your vehicle’s windshield, and as you zoom under an overhead antenna on a toll road, or under an overhead antenna on a tolled bridge, your account is debited the correct amount.

  14. I live in Kent and drive 167 all the time.

    The HOV lanes are an idiotic waste of resource.

    So many times at night, when traffic is still heavy, I’ve seen many near accidents as the traffic tries to squeeze into two lanes while the third remains completely empty!

    Even if you have a passenger and want to drive in them (legally) you can only enter at the dashed lines and that makes for some skillful maneuvering.

    Dumb idea.

    If anything 167 next expansion and more lanes. The growing traffic there to new neighborhoods demands that it be converted to an Interstate class highway.

    1. I can attest to the accident problem with those HOT lanes. I was riding in a car when we attempted to move into the HOT lane, the driver behind accelerated into the HOT lane and around us and into the median barrier and destroyed his car. It was the driver of my car at fault for failing to merge correctly but the issue was moving into a HOT lane is only permitted at certain locations. Traffic stuck in the left lane has a tendency to get impatient and thus not pay attention to anyone else who also is trying to merge. Hence something that is should be easy, changing a lane on the freeway becomes more difficult due to the HOT lane rules.

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