A massive experiment in road tolling is getting underway here in Puget Sound. A 40-mile stretch of I-405 and SR-167 is being converted to include “express toll lanes.” These HOT lanes will replace the current HOV lanes throughout the corridor. You can read STB’s previous coverage of the project here.

Phase 1 of the project, between Bellevue and the junction with I-5 in Lynwood, is set to open next year at a cost of $334M. Phase 2 will extend the toll lanes from Lynwood to the Pierce County line, resulting in a single, 40-mile tolled corridor with a direct flyover ramp connecting 167 and 405. That phase is expected to cost $1.1B and is not yet funded.

To address the funding issue, last week WSDOT released a comprehensive report including recommendations on how the tolls should work and how the project should be funded. Among the recommendations:

  • Allow carpools of 3 or more to use the HOT lanes for free in the peak, and carpools of 2 or more to use them free off-peak (drivers would have a switchable transponder that they could turn off so as not to get charged when carpooling)
  • Fund the project with $960M in gas tax revenue and $215M in tolls.

The latter recommendation is important because state law mandated that the project bring in enough in tolls to recoup operating expenses within two years, or be shut down. The legislature also stipulated that the lanes must maintain speeds of 45 miles per hour at least 90 percent of the time during peak periods.  This is important, because the current 2-person HOV lane has been failing in this regard, hurting transit on the corridor.

So the goal is to set the prices in such a way as to not only generate constant speeds, but also hit a minimum revenue target. As Sightline documented last year, that can be difficult to achieve. Looking at the same SR-167 corridor that would be expanded in this project, they noted that WSDOT grossly overestimated how much people were willing to pay.

The SR-167 was, relatively speaking, an inexpensive experiment: converting existing HOV lanes to HOT lanes. The 405/167 project is far more ambitious, so the funding scheme requires commensurately detailed scrutiny.

To WSDOT’s credit, this study updates their previous models to take into account what we now know about people’s willingness to pay (hint: not very much). That, in turn, leads the agency to reduce by half its estimates of how much revenue can be brought in by tolling. However, the report still references PSRC’s estimate that daily trips on the corridor will increase from 950,000 to 1.5M by 2030, even though traffic on 405 has actually been flat for the last 15 years.

Toll lanes strike me as the hyperloop of roads: an idea that draws attention all out of proportion to its actual utility. While there’s an undeniable appeal to the pay-as-you-go capitalism of it, it always seems to get confused as to what the point of the toll is.  And it turns out that people don’t value their time nearly as much as economic models would predict. On the other hand, it does have some positive feedback loops: the more people have transponders in their cars, the more tolling becomes a fact of life. That in turn drives greater acceptance of tolling and, potentially, all-day dynamic congestion pricing throughout the region. That’s something worth aiming for.

53 Replies to “WSDOT Recommends Funding Plan for 405 Express Toll Lanes”

  1. In contrast to SR-167, the 520 bridge has retained 80% of its traffic volumes and moved some people to transit.

    My guess is that the primary difference between these two experiments is that SR-167 provides a parallel free alternative (one lane over), whereas 520 drivers would have to completely change their commute and use I-90 or drive around North in order to not pay. In other words, people know a good deal when they see one, and waiting an extra few minutes to save some money is, often, a good deal.

    So, I’m a bit pessimistic that the 405 HOT tolling will be as successful as 520 tolling because it looks more like SR-167 in design, but, either way I think it’s a good wedge into congestion pricing.

    1. I don’t think that article says that the 520 bridge has retained 80%. It says 520 bridge commuting is down by “half”, and total commuting over the 520 and I-90 bridges together is down 20% (so 80% is retained over the lake bridges together).

  2. The SR-167 HOT lanes have been an undeniably colossal failure. Sure, there’s been basically zero impact to HOV because of it. But, it took in way less toll than was projected. I imagine by now it has broken even on the capital investments, but that took way more than two years. I-405 HOT lanes will also fail badly. So if there is this 2-year trial and it performs just as bad as 167, does that just mean WSDOT converts them to non-paying traffic? It sounds brilliantly sheisty on their part to shoehorn in an unnecessary capital investment programme. I’ll grant that 167 isn’t the best of corridors for an initial HOT lane programme–it isn’t long and those who traverse it are a much poorer demographic than North/East King County and SW Snohomish County. Still, this thing is totally doomed.

    1. “The SR-167 HOT lanes have been an undeniably colossal failure”

      What would have to happen in order for them to be labeled a success? Keep in mind I don’t think the goal was ever for them to be “profitable”.

      1. The pilot project has shown that people are unwilling to actually pay for the HOT lanes in any order of magnitude worth the investment in it in the first place. I’m not suggesting “profitability”, but the intent of the project was to show that there is actually demand to buy your way out of congestion. People haven’t been willing to do that.

        The brilliance of the project was that you just had to put some paint on the ground, a few access points, add in the transponder devices, and then put out patrol during peak hours to enforce. The facility was already there. It may now be *finally* recovering actual operating costs, but it has never paid for the actual investment in it originally made.

        The project was intended to be a clever way for WSDOT to expand that into actual *new* asphalt and lane miles in the network under the auspicious of HOT/HOV lanes. Cuz, ya know, that means way more capacity than general purpose lanes!! The new 405 facilities were never needed and we will find out that like 167, people aren’t willing to pay, which will mean our gas taxes will be further spent another failed facility. And where will be? Right back at GO. Like clockwork, this will just convert to GP lanes or be doomed to almost-never-usage.

      2. To further hit the point home, if WSDOT actually cared about the speed and reliability of the existing HOV lanes on 405, then they would make the HOV lanes HOVE+3 within 5 miles of Bellevue in both directions from the city centre.

      3. As someone who used to occaisionally drive the 167 HOV lanes as an HOV after the HOT lanes were implemented, I think its far more of a design of the road problem. Unless you’re going the entire length of 167, they are incredibly awkward to get in and out of. the access points are in weird places. I’d either get in them and get out 2 miles before my destination, or get in them and dodge across all lanes in 1000 feet to get off the road (which is pretty hair raising on 167…) Also, some of the onramps don’t have nearby access points… I think the way the lanes are accessed are very poorly designed.

  3. I think this kind of misses what’s awesome about HOT lanes for fans of transit. Transit and bike lanes are in competition for scarce state money. WADOT has, like all states DOTs, spent years pointing to congested freeways, and said hey look at all that demand for roads, we must widen again! It’s like Ben and Jerry’s deciding they needed to open vastly more stores because of all the lines on free cone day. HOT lanes guarantee congestion free travel for a small fraction of the cost of roadway widening and sever the fundamental law of congestion. Now if WADOT wants to widen it has to justify based on what it will actually achieve: more sprawl, longer commutes.

    1. The tolls basically pay for nothing. I don’t see how it’s actually changing the goal posts, besides how Frank mentioned tolling being more common as a funding mechanism in the toolkit. WSDOT is just as disordered as ever. The agency needs to be killed.

      1. Yes because they only provide the very lifeblood of transportation in the region. How shortsighted.

      2. Someone will doubtless Hirsch report their buzz. Higher taxes on gas? Nope. Smaller cars? Well, I’ve seen a few. Insulation? Iffy. Setup and density of settlements? Fractal failure. And now even Forbes of all rags is making cautionary noises about the Suadi American Shale.

    2. Maybe it will at least make transit move a bit more freely?

      I attempted to take one of Belair Airporter Express buses from the Anacortes Ferry Terminal to SeaTac Airport this past summer. It was stuck in traffic from Marysville to the airport, including being diverted to I-405 because supposedly that would be faster.

      The bus arrived at the terminal about 2 1/2 hours later than scheduled, and there were certainly people upset about missed flights.

  4. How are the HOT lane limits enforced? Do troopers know if a car with 2 people has its transponder on?

    1. Drivers will be on their own to switch the transponder off when they’re in a carpool. I assume there will be some kind of spot enforcement, but basically it’s the honor system.

  5. More of the same ‘Chair Shuffling’ on the Titanic?
    Electronic tolling is probably the least efficient way to fun transportation in this state. 167 has yet to show a dime of profit when all the costs for implementation, administration, and fare collection are factored in (including all the WSDOT time buried in other projects). 405 will extend the ‘Zero Sum’ game they are playing, and don’t fool yourself, it will not shut down after two years of failure.
    Tolls on 520 export about 1/3 of it’s captive audience revenue to non highway purposes, and all this to pretend they are managing congestion. Well, congestion has been doing a decent job of managing itself for the last 15 years without a whole new barnyard full of animals gathered around the trough.
    Transit shouldn’t be so smug either. How much has been spent since Sound Move started to increase transit usage in the region? Hell, even walkers and bikers are kicking transits asses in the battle for increased mode share. Transit is stuck at less than 5% of all the trips taken, yet continues to demand double digit increases year after year from the local economy.
    Some dramatic gains from all these grand plans would be nice from the transportation sector someday.

  6. Has anybody here driven I-90 and or I-80 in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio? On 90 the whole way from the Wisconsin/Illinois state line to Youngstown, Ohio the whole way is tolled. Judging by the numbers of cars I saw, if you toll everything equally then the roads still get used. Look at the number of cars using I-5 and 405 every day, if there is a toll it will free up capacity and encourage transit usage. The caveat here is that the transit system needs to be there to do it… Link needs to be to Tacoma, Sounder needs all day 7 day a week service, and there needs to be an ST Express bus on every freeway (now tollway) every ten minutes. Robust transit is what will enable this. Chicago has an amazing transit system that gets used by everybody. We can have the same.

    If the major throughways were all tolled, there would certainly be greater incentive for people to think outside their cars.

    1. Chicago’s transit system is excellent for people that work in downtown Chicago (wherever they live). It’s OK for general movement within the city, but just OK. Ashland BRT is an ambitious plan, but it comes after decades of failed attempts to make north-south crosstown transit fast enough on Ashland and Western.

      In the suburbs, which house a portion of the area’s population comparable to ours, intra-suburban transit is far worse than in Seattle. Transit service to major suburban employers is, with few exceptions, nearly useless. Chicago probably has more walkable suburbs than Seattle, but it also has racial and class divisions in the suburbs as extreme as those in the city. Most people driving on roads like the tri-state, or I-80, have no realistic transit alternative.

    2. ” On 90 the whole way from the Wisconsin/Illinois state line to Youngstown, Ohio the whole way is tolled.”

      I-90 is tolled to around the OH-57 interchange in Elyria. East of there, through Cleveland and to the PA border, it is a ‘free’way.

    3. Nathan,

      You can’t do it, at least not on I-5, I-405 or I-90, without “expanding capacity”. It is quite expressly forbidden by Federal law for Interstate facilities to be tolled except to pay for an expansion of capacity (for example, the HOT lanes) or a replacement structure which has reached the end of its service life of the same capacity, which rarely occurs.

      There is one loophole. Congress in it finite wisdom provided for either twenty or two dozen “test” sites of capacity management tolling on existing and unchanged Interstate facilities. Those “slots” are currently all taken.

  7. The whole project should be scrubbed and we shold build rail-based Rapid transit Along I-405. From Renton (Rainier Beach?) to Lynnwood. We sholdn’t try to use the whole East Side Rail corridor since it misses a lot of major destinations, but its already adjacent to East Link Hospital Station and S. Kirkland P&R. building some new track around Kirkland and South Bellevue shouldn’t cost that much. The whole thing shouldn’t cost more than 3 Billion, and having Link go around Lake Washington would be far better than building it all the way to Everett or Tacoma, where it will see little off-peak ridership. why are we building more roads??

  8. Somebody please tell me where I’ve missed any reference to transit. From last ride on 566, seem to recall that the bus couldn’t even use the “HOT” lanes.


    1. Really? I’ve got a friend who commutes on the 567 every day; he said he chose it over driving specifically because it uses the HOT lanes. I can’t imagine the 566 would be different.

    2. The bus can use the HOT lanes. It just has to exit at the proper exit points of the HOT lane just like any other vehicle operator permitted to use the lane. (The lanes are double white lines where you can’t just cross anywhere).

  9. My issues with this are:

    (1) In the midst of heavy traffic (like just recently when I decided to go for lunch at 5 Guys Burgers at Larkspur Landing from my apartment on Kent Easy Hill, a trip of 10 miles, and it took me an hour), the HOT lanes are under utilized.

    (2) HOT lanes promise fast access for a fee by segregating cars from the usual traffic density. However, it is often not the density that determines speed, but the poorly designed interchanges. And, like in the connection between West Valley Highway and I-405, the HOT lane ends, and everyone gets put into the queue anyway, all that advantage gets lost! Many of our problems with highways, are caused not by “sprawl” but simply by bad design and inadequate highways. HOT lanes are not a solution to bad design.

    (3) For those who have been paying taxes for decades in this state to build those lanes, removing that lane from our use is like stealing.

    1. I’m with you on point 2: the HOT lanes are by themselves inadequate without interchanges – which is why this project’s planning to build a flyover ramp to I-405, where a huge percentage of the commute traffic is going. This’s also why we need full traffic separation for Link, BRT, and streetcars.

      For point 3, though, would you call building HOV lanes stealing? What’s the difference, when both are paid out of general revenue?

    2. You’re definitely on to something when you say “HOT lanes aren’t a solution to a bad design.” Urban highways are inherently bad design. Hence, why we shouldn’t be spending a penny to expand them.

    3. John,

      Part of the reason that even the increased state fuel taxes paid these days don’t meet the full needs for state-funded roads is that all those freeway lane-miles that have been built as capital projects over the past sixty-some years are wearing out and need deep reconstruction overhauls. In addition, most even lightly used state highways have been rebuild to modern safety standards with wider shoulders, a smoother surface, and white edge lines in the past twenty years.

      I think you understand those things, but perhaps forgot to include it.

  10. For point 3, though, would you call building HOV lanes stealing? What’s the difference, when both are paid out of general revenue?

    If I paid with taxes, say in 1989, with dollars from that era, I would say that I — and everyone around then — bought a lane. Now you are saying that someone moving to the area, can take that lane from me, with watered down 2014 dollars.

    1. I don’t understand what you’re saying. Unless you mean that I shouldn’t be allowed to use any infrastructure built before I moved to the area? Or that no HOV lane should ever be built with general-revenue dollars?

      1. I am saying this is a kind of “Tyranny of the Majority”. You are seizing something that was bought and paid for by the original taxpayers and then charging money for us to use it. That is theft to me.

      2. But you can still use it for free if you carpool, so it’s still available to all the original taxpayers. If you don’t accept that as being available, then your argument would apply equally well to all HOV lanes. Are you willing to go there?

      3. You did not buy and do not own things because you paid taxes for them. Things change, and it’s the responsibility of the state to choose the best use for its assets. If you think it’s an unwise or unfair use then make a case. It flat out is not theft.

        Even so, every time you jump in the 150 you round up a carpool, and that’s no small matter.

      4. You did not buy and do not own things because you paid taxes for them.

        Taking something that was already purchased and slapping a fee on it and selling it back to the original owners generational theft.

      5. Please, John, explain to me what distinguishes this situation from building an HOV lane, aside from GP traffic being able to use this lane for a limited time. It’s the same end situation.

    2. John,

      That’s frankly loony. You don’t get a lien on the roads your tax dollars built anymore than you are excluded from using ones built before you were born.

      Loony, dude. Really.

    1. The electric-powered vehicles have four seats, can carry a 500 kg payload, and are designed to travel at 40 km/h (25 mph) at gradients of up to 20%

      Beats out streetcars!

  11. I think the express toll plan makes a lot of sense. It significantly increases capacity in the corridor and truly does have something for everyone.

    Bus riders get faster, more reliable service because the majority of the corridor would now have 2 lanes in each direction, and these would be capacity controlled to ensure fast speeds.

    Carpoolers also get a faster more reliable ride.

    Solo-drivers would get an extra lane (in the portion from Bellevue to Renton at least, which would go to 2+1h to 3+2h), would be able to pay to avoid traffic, and would benefit from more cars theoretically using the toll lanes.

    The reality is that the 405 corridor doesn’t have the density to support fixed rail transit. I could see segments of the corridor making sense (for example, along the rail line through Kirkland up to Totem Lake) but there’s simply not demand for fixed rail connecting Renton with Bellevue. I see this as a compromise that gives something to everyone, manages the costs, and still ends up pretty good for transit and carpools. With that said, the key to success will be ensuring that there are improvements to the HOV-only interchanges and more of them added. SR-167 to I-405 would be particularly important.

    1. WSDOT and Sound Transit are both anticipating BRT on 405, not light rail. There might be a light rail segment from Bellevue to Kirkland, as part of a line to north Seattle or Issaquah, but that’s all.

    2. 1. It isn’t just density, it’s layout.

      2. Knowing what we know about carbon emissions in 2014, increasing freeway lanes and entrenching these areas in auto-domination is the worst possible thing. In their current form these areas are dependent on long trips for almost every need — this is unsustainable and must ultimately change. It’s irresponsible to put off that change by increasing vehicle capacity.

      1. Then we should be building a hydrogen highway and preparing for the FCVs from Hyundai and Toyota.

    3. I feel like a diversion of some of the Sounder South line trains into Bellevue’s Hospital Station would generate a considerable amount of ridership. Obviously a lot of infrastructure will have to be built/repaired, but I think its well worth it.

      1. They really SHOULD do that but will they? They won’t… Simply because of Renton. Not that they could do anything to stop it since the rail line is there and in use by BNSF.

  12. I think that changing the Seattle reversible express lane entrances under the Key Tower from HOV to HOT would be really useful. They seem underutilized right now.

  13. YES. We need this. I was a daily 167 HOT lane commuter a few years ago. You are all right – it failed. It only failed because it didn’t go far enough. The ten miles between Puyallup and Auburn is where it needs to begin…not by Auburn where it currently starts (or ends, depending on direction) because that’s where the traffic loosens up a little. There is a project to expand the HOT lane down to Edgewood, so that’s a start….

    I predict the 405 express lanes will be more successful. The Renton S Curves are always such a mess I think more people will be willing to pay to skip it. I am one of them. I’ll pay $5 bucks to save 20 minutes. In comparison, when I was using the 167 HOT lanes the entire length, I was paying $3.50 to save 5 – 10 minutes on average.

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