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.