A lot of commuters, irate at the ever-increasing bottlenecks due to higher and higher freeway usage, have found their scapegoat: non-general-purpose lanes of any flavor.

The problem clearly pre-dated the roll-out of HOT lanes on I-405 north of Bellevue last September.

One of my own state representatives, Steve Bergquist (D – 11th District), resisted toll and HOV lanes before the lanes went live, so his support for scuttling the HOT experiment in its infancy should not be unexpected. Indeed, he is the second signatory on HB 2312, the companion to SB 6152, which got a hearing Thursday, and which Erica wrote about on Friday. As Bergquist admits, he is skeptical of taking away general-purpose lanes:

I think we jumped out ahead of ourselves a little bit on this project. Citizens want to see a reason to have two HOT lanes instead of one or three person carpool lanes instead of two person. My original bill, HB 2289, that I dropped last year would have eased us into a transition and used data to back up moving to 3+ carpool, rather than making such an abrupt jump.

State Rep. Steve Bergquist
State Rep. Steve Bergquist

Since September, I have been experiencing firsthand the significant effect this is having on my constituents. I am a small business owner up in the Kirkland / Bellevue area. Trying to commute back to Renton now pretty much anytime between 3 & 7 via 405 from the 520 corridor has added about 15 to 20 minutes to my normal commute, or 10 to 15 if I take alternative side roads which I have been using instead. I don’t think that was the desired impact.

So I’m signed on to continue the conversation and hopefully come up with a few changes that can help everyone in the corridor have a better commute. The bill will probably not be passing in the form it currently sits. But hopefully it will help move the conversation forward and come up with some solutions to many of the constituent frustrations I am hearing about within this corridor.

It seems reasonable to expect that SOV drivers will take time getting used to paying tolls, finding people with whom to carpool, or taking the bus when the bus happens to be useful. It is also to be expected that as HOT lanes open up and become faster, general-purpose lanes will, at least temporarily, become slower. If they expect the general-purpose lanes to get faster instantly, they are unclear on the concept of priority lanes. SOV drivers will look over and see buses, carpools, and toll-payers flying by them, and get jealous, even if their trip is somehow faster than before.

Furthermore, if WSDOT widely advertises the success of HOT lanes in speeding up average trip time, it is reasonable to expect induced demand to counteract that success, at least in the general-purpose lanes.

When WSDOT presents statistics (Thanks, Josh at Publicola!) that average trip time is actually decreasing through the corridor, it becomes incumbent on the priority-lane critics to explain what is wrong with the data, and not resort anecdotally to citing more angry constituents on the side of SOVs than happy constituents (much less likely to contact them) on the side of free flow for buses and carpools. Remember: Those buses are full of lots of riders, and there will likely be more and more of them as commuters catch on to the time advantage.

Since I rarely travel to the Eastside, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, except for solidarity with my fellow riders, and their ability to bypass inevitable gridlock. But I do think taking away HOT lanes and loosening carpool ridership requirements should be the move that has to be justified by data, collected over a long enough period of time to have some statistical validity.

59 Replies to “Priority Lanes & Their Democratic Skeptics”

  1. As I believe was mentioned in the earlier thread, Rep. Bergquist’s complaint is probably valid. The 520-405 interchange has become worse because WSDOT basically took away an extra lane there. 405-522 is also probably worse. However, WSDOT is also correct that a trip along the whole length of the ETLs is probably faster, even in the GP lanes. Probably the best solution would be to completely re-do the both the whole 405-520 interchange and 405-522 interchanges to provide sufficient capacity (that probably means adding an exit/entrance lane) and HOV-HOV ramps.

    In some ways, WSDOT is a victim of their own success. Even they did not think they would get this many people to use the lanes this quickly. And that’s become a problem for them.

    1. “In some ways, WSDOT is a victim of their own success. Even they did not think they would get this many people to use the lanes this quickly. And that’s become a problem for them.”

      Sounds like they should lift the $10 cap on the toll then, right?

      1. Why even have a cap? I think the best solution is 100% market-based pricing. If traffic is so bad on 405 that people are willing to pay $100 to skip it, they should be able to. I don’t think it’s ever going to go that high, but this would let demand drive it. If you don’t want to pay the toll, take a bus or carpool.

      2. Great Idea. Link could take a lesson in variable pricing schemes during rush hour.
        Want a seat from UW to SeaTac at 5pm? That will be $17.50 thank you!
        Please tap again, and hit the ‘screw me’ button.

      3. If this was a private business, I’d be fine with them charging extra for premium service. If Comcast wants to charge an extra $30/month for “super fast” internet, that’s their choice.

        I’m uncomfortable when it’s a government agency. I don’t think WSDOT should be gouging people even if some are willing to pay $20+ each time.

        Then again, I’m okay with tolls in general, so clearly there’s a sweet spot for me that is expensive enough to serve the purpose of traffic amelioration, while not so expensive that it is hurting vulnerable citizens. I imagine everyone will have their own idea of where that break point is.

        Maybe lift the $10 toll cap, but also implement some sort of “405 LIFT” program to give low-income people reduced tolls.

      4. How often is it running at the $10 cap though? And when it does hit the cap, how long does it stay there?

        WSDOT says 92% of the time the toll paid is $4 or less.

      5. In many discussion of Sounder, it’s already stated that Sounder is more expensive because it’s more guaranteed service than the buses. So we are already providing premium service for a price tag. If Link actually has rush-hour capacity problems, then maybe raising the rush hour price will keep demand and supply in check until more supply can be added.

        The difference between market-based pricing and the current situation is that above some point, the lines become HOV only and you can’t pay anything to get into the lane. My suggestion is to keep raising the price instead of making it HOV only – if people really are willing to pay, let them. The goal is to keep the lanes flowing – it doesn’t matter whether we restrict to HOV only or just raise the toll to $50. The $10 cap has only been hit a handful of times thus far. Going above it will be rare.

        As for a low income rate, I have mixed feelings. Enforcing it will be difficult and there are complications. What if two people carpool and one qualifies and one doesnt – do we only allow the low-income person to receive the discount? Can that person move their tag to their friend’s/co-worker’s car? ORCA is easier since it’s tied to a person directly and you’re charging the person, not the car.

      6. “Why even have a cap?”

        I thought about that, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it zooming up to $150 or $300 without any stages in between. Better to raise it to $50, which I hope it would never hit, and then see whether that keeps the lane moving.

        “Link could take a lesson in variable pricing schemes during rush hour.”

        That gets into the differing public interest in transit vs roadspace. The government has an interest in ensuring maximum mobility for everybody for any purpose because that leads to the strongest economy, society, and cultural life. That mobility is transit, sidewalks, and bikeways. But cars and parking can’t scale, it would cost prohibitively much and take the majority of land out of use to build enough road lanes and parking lots so that everybody can drive everywhere without congestion. Driving is a luxury, so if the roads are full and you have to pay a toll to use the premium lane, tough. You should have insisted that your suburbs be more bus-accessible and walkable rather than assuming everybody would drive everywhere and cutting off other options. In the meantime, the answer is not to turn the HOT lane into GP or 2+ and slow down the buses further.

        “I don’t think WSDOT should be gouging people even if some are willing to pay $20+ each time.”

        It’s only gouging if there’s no other free lane. The purpose of the HOT lanes is to keep the buses moving and cars with a high person-to-vehicle ratio. Toll spaces are just to offer spare capacity to SOV drivers rather than letting it sit empty. If cars are overcrowding the HOT because the toll has hit an artificially-low ceiling or the carpool minimum is too low, then the lane isn’t fulfilling its primary purpose.

        “also implement some sort of “405 LIFT” program to give low-income people reduced tolls.”

        I’d rather build low-income and workforce housing so that they could move to a transit-rich location if they want to.

      7. “In many discussion of Sounder, it’s already stated that Sounder is more expensive because it’s more guaranteed service than the buses. So we are already providing premium service for a price tag. If Link actually has rush-hour capacity problems, then maybe raising the rush hour price will keep demand and supply in check until more supply can be added.”

        That reasoning itself is controversial. ST set a premium fare for Sounder to reflect the operating costs (several train staff, track lease from BNSF). But the government has an interest in providing the most mobility the most efficient way possible, which means maximizing the use of Sounder. You don’t encourage people to use something by making it more expensive than something else; you do it by making it the same price or less. The transit agencies should be encouraging everyone in those corridors to use Sounder and Link and RapidRide rather than other routes. Premium fares should be for long-distance peak-express buses.

        Sounder South may have a capacity problem. I’ve heard that’s why the peak 59x routes weren’t deleted because they can’t all fit on Sounder, but I don’t know how true that is. If that is the problem, then ST’s first priority should be increasing Sounder’s capacity.

      8. If traffic is so bad on 405 that people are willing to pay $100 to skip it, they should be able to. I don’t think it’s ever going to go that high

        A couple years back I was on a Belair bus from Bellingham to SeaTac, and I-5 traffic was so bad that they routed the bus to I-405. It got to SeaTac about an hour and a half late.

        I’m sure there are those that would have gladly paid $100 to avoid rescheduling their flight.

      9. If there is a $10 toll cap, and the HOT lane becomes congested, then WS-DOT should close the HOT lane to single occupant vehicles. They made a commitment to maintaining 45 mph flow in the HOT lane, and if there are too many vehicles to deliver that, closing it to SOVs makes sense.

        I’m a little dubious of the statement that 92% of the time the toll is less than $4, or understanding exactly what that means. Are the lanes tolled 24 hours per day? Taking the statement literally that means 8% of the time, or about 2 hours a day, the toll is above $4. Those two hours are presumably when everyone wants to be traveling, during the peak of traffic and in the peak direction. They didn’t say 92% of the tolls collected are less than $4.

        My guess is that the fairest thing to do is to let them raise the toll above $10 when the HOT flows too slowly, so that someone who was counting on using it still has that option, rather than prohibiting SOVs.

    2. Uber is an interesting comparison. While surge-based pricing in Uber is unpopular, the service is quite popular and growing despite it. Uber could be providing people’s first introduction to the concept of demand in transportation. I’d love to see demographic stats of those who wish to abolish HOT fees – my guess is most of them are old enough to feel entitled to free flowing, “free” highways

  2. One thing that 520 shows is that transit priority lanes really do make a difference in getting people on transit. Even people headed to Microsoft with free parking still ride the 545, in large part due to being able to use the HOV lane to get home in the afternoon. While congestion in the 520 general-purpose lanes is still as bad as ever, the HOV lane at least makes it possible to ride the bus and bypass most of the congestion. There is nothing like the possibility of getting home faster to bring people out of their cars.

  3. Good points! The toll lanes provide a reliably quicker option. Before, there was no option since all lanes were slow. It’s the main north-south freeway in a car suburbia. Of course there will be traffic regardless and that’s what the residents and employees should have expected when they moved over there.

    Now when can WSDOT move to 3+ on the I-5 HOV lanes??

  4. “My original bill, HB 2289, that I dropped last year would have eased us into a transition and used data to back up moving to 3+ carpool, rather than making such an abrupt jump.”

    Um WSDOT did ease into a transition. It’s 2+ in the off-peak and 3+ in the peak. You wont find data anywhere that supports 2+ carpools during the peak (you didn’t even need data, just travel on the road and you would see it). The lane was clearly broken on I-405 and is clearly broken on I-5. If anything the experience on I-405 should justify increasing I-5 to 3+.

    1. The problems with 2+ essentially boil down to simple math. If the average peak vehicle occupancy is 1.2 passengers per car (assuming no HOV lanes at all), this means that roughly 1/5 if cars are naturally going to be carrying 2 or more occupants anyway. Now, suppose the freeway has 5 lanes per direction, one of which is a 2+ HOV lane. So, when the general-purpose lanes are congested, each of the cars that happens to be carrying 2+ people move into that lane. The result is an HOV lane that takes up 1/5 of the road space, carrying 1/5 of the vehicle load. So, of course it’s just as crowded as the general-purpose lanes, and moves just as slowly.

      1. Indeed true. A large number of two-person “carpools” are actually nothing more than parents shuttling their kids to and from school activities.

      2. >> if the average peak vehicle occupancy is 1.2 passengers per car (assuming no HOV lanes at all), this means that roughly 1/5 if cars are naturally going to be carrying 2 or more occupants

        Well, no. That would only be true if no car was carrying more than two people. So, for example, imagine a car with four people in it, a car with two people in it, and 18 single passenger cars. The 20 cars are carrying 24 people. 24/20 = 1.2 people per car.

        it really needs to be judged on a case by case basis. There are plenty of places where a two person car pool is an improvement and runs just fine. I believe the West Seattle freeway is like that (the problem with the West Seattle freeway is getting to and from those lanes, not the lanes themselves). But for most of our area, that isn’t the case.

        This is why the feds have standards. 45 MPH is the number, if I’m not mistaken. If the HOV lane travels at that speed, then it is doing OK. If not, the HOV limit needs to be increased. For most of our area, that is the case. So in that sense, I fully agree with representative Bergquist — we should use data to justify a change to HOV 3+. But the opposite is true as well. We should change to HOV 3+ whenever the data justifies it and do that as soon as possible. This means changing it on I-5 and I-90 and (I would bet) I-405.

      3. We should change to HOV 3+ whenever the data justifies it and do that as soon as possible. This means changing it on I-5 and I-90 and (I would bet) I-405.

        Damn straight! And 2+ was not working on 405 north of Bellevue. It’s not working on 405 south of Bellevue either. The problem is there is no way in hell that we have the political consensus to just change it to 3+. It’s considered with a religious fervor that “you” are taking something away from “me” that I already paid for. So the toll lanes are the way to make this acceptable. But perhaps more importantly they start to change the mindset of “roads are free”. Washington has a history of using tolls only to pay off capital construction bonds. That has to change.

      4. Yes, it is politically challenging, but so to is the HOT system (as is evident by this post). The HOT system has its proponents (those who see it as a good way to get rich people to pay more) but it has its opponents as well (those who see it as unfair that rich people get a special lane).

        There was a report a while back that looked at the numbers of people in the car pool lanes. I found it surprising. I forget the numbers, but it wasn’t dominated by two person cars. They didn’t represent 90% of the vehicles, as you would imagine, but something like 45%. While still the biggest group (30% had three people, 25% had four or more) it meant that most of the people who rode in cars did not ride in a two person car. They rode in 3+ cars. This means that if you basically kicked out the two person cars, more people would benefit than lose out. Since the people who would lose out would be harmed more by it, they would likely whine more about it. But if people voted for their own self interest, more of the current riders of cars (to say nothing of the bus riders) in the HOV lanes would support the change.

        I really think it is just political inertia as to why this hasn’t changed. So far as I know, there is no talk of changing the HOV lanes on 520, despite the fact that the original reason for it (keeping the numbers down because the lanes are too narrow) is going away (or could have been remedied) by the new work.

        I think a ballot initiative would pass, for example. Unfortunately, such an initiative would have to be state wide, since the lanes in question (I-5 for example) go through different counties. I personally would not favor simply changing them all to HOV 3, but rather asking for a change if they didn’t meet federal guidelines. For just about the lanes, this would mean a change to HOV 3.

  5. The real problem is that most people are stupid and selfish. Steve should get back to me when he is done putting up a valid disagreement with Anthony downs.

  6. I like the current setup, but I think $10 is a bit steep; possibly lower the peak congestion toll somewhere between $6-8.

    1. If you do that, you’ll just end up hitting HOV Only limits more often which will restrict access completely. Personally, I favor no cap – that will let the market decide.

      1. Fundamentally, you are correct to let the market decide what the rate is, but this is a big change with a sudden financial impact. Sometimes baby-steps until you get to market rate HOT lane access.

    2. If you have a cap at $6, but the $6 is not enough to keep the lanes flowing, there is no point in charging anything. How is that so hard to understand? The money is a byproduct of keeping a real option for people who, for whatever reason, need to make a congestion free trip at that point in time. It’s the only way to let them do that and the only way to ration our fixed amount of freeway space.

    3. $10 is the right number. It’s currently running an average of about $7.50 during the morning peak from I-5 to NE 6th. That still gives WSDOT some wiggle room to optimize the flow on the critical section between I-5 and 522. When it goes to $10 it’s pretty much self regulating in that the traffic flow is not much faster in the HOT lane than the GP lane (that’s why the toll went up). Really, when they are charging $10 it means the system is FUBAR and no level of tolling is going to get the speed back above 45mph. The $10 cap will have to increase over time unless a second HOT lane is added but doing so now would be a major publicity blunder and not do much if anything to get traffic moving.

  7. A bit of G**gle search tells me that Mr. Bergquist’s business is close to Bel-Red Rd in Bellevue, and that his shortest route to Renton entirely bypasses the I-405 Toll Lanes.
    though he may be accustomed to a route (via 520 and 405) that involves the last 0.5 mile or so of the toll lanes.
    The notion that the toll lanes have “added about 15 to 20 minutes to my normal commute” is an example of the cognitive difficulties we all have with unavoidable frustrations such as traffic and airport travel. And life-long residents have grown up with the assumption of toll-free driving, a belief that is deep-seated and difficult to overturn.

  8. There’s a reasonable egalitarian impulse against straight-up auction pricing for use of public infrastructure. We don’t even do that for parking, where it would be substantially more fair to do so (with parking there’s usually a range of acceptable options and people regularly have to look around for spaces anyway, but we try to keep prices consistent for some reason). The idea that auctioning off excess HOV/transit lane capacity increases the “efficiency” of the road by increasing its capacity doesn’t align with any environmental line of thought — if anything it’s against environmental impulses, too, because the capacity being increased is vehicle capacity, and increasing vehicle capacity is sure to increase VMT! Indeed, the rational response to the policy on the part of a high-salary office worker is to use the freeway as a ’60s-style sprawl enabler. Earn urban wages, pay rural housing prices, and commute fast every day knowing that daily toll fluctuations won’t make much of a dent.

    For environmental progressives there’s a clear red line: no major vehicle-capacity increases. For transportation progressives there’s a clear red line: the buses must flow, which at this point appears to mean HOV 3+ or bus-only lanes. Nobody is going to win an election along the 405 corridor promising to hold these lines on 405, so the only progressive plank left for local Democrats is opposing the auction. For populist Republicans (as opposed to ideological conservatives or pragmatic business-y Republicans) that are reflexively hostile to environmental and transportation progress, the position is even clearer. The thing that holds 405 together is the general environmental and transportation progressive thought of regional and state leaders, elected and appointed.

    Along these lines, environmental and transportation progressives might want to take a look at the 509 extension… even if it’s not a local concern for you, neither is it truly a local concern for the freight and SOV activists that want to expand Tacoma-Seattle vehicle capacity. Right now, AFAICT, the plans are not very good for the things we care about.

    1. That 509 extension is horrible, but sadly the community adjacent to it seems OK with it (maybe since it has been talked about for 40 years?).

      Really sad to see WSDOT argue that “reduced congestion” will occur on I-5 due to the project. More like induced demand will cause all kinds of chaos at all adjacent ramps and interchanges.

    2. Well said. Every bit of it. I was very much concerned about HOT lanes, and still am. Unless they somehow magically make all vehicle flow better, they are likely to encounter opposition. The same is true of bus lanes, but it is pretty easy to justify bus lanes on proletariat grounds. The HOT lanes seem to be the worst of both worlds from a political standpoint — a project that somehow makes life easier for tree huggers and rich people at the same time. That is a nasty combination from a suburban political standpoint. It is very easy to say that some poor slob stuck on the bus deserves a faster ride — it is much harder to say that he and the guy driving the Lexus get to drive in this exclusive lane.

      I completely agree about both the 509 and 167 projects. They are at best a give away to the trucking industry (and thus a way of screwing over any hope of efficient bidirectional rail cargo) at worst just a sprawl inducing traffic fiasco. We are building a couple new freeways that will make it even easier to use I-5 — that won’t even help with the stated purpose (improving traffic). I wrote my rep about the whole thing — she basically said she agreed, but we were stuck with it (if we wanted the other, more sensible and much smaller transportation improvements).

  9. @Al Dimond – “The idea that auctioning off excess HOV/transit lane capacity increases the “efficiency” of the road by increasing its capacity doesn’t align with any environmental line of thought”.

    I’m not sure that’s the main, and it’s certainly not the ONLY line of argument for road pricing (dynamic or otherwise). My take is that pricing is about economic efficiency – directing the capacity to uses that are most valuable (as measured by willingness to pay). Very roughly, capacity (vehicle flow) is limited by safe following TIME (approx. 2 sec per vehicle), though very low and very high speeds change things a bit.

    Pricing carbon has more or less the same goal – aim for a target total and let markets work to allocate usage within that total. More directly so with cap-and-trade, but carbon taxes are proposed for basically the same reason.

    If we don’t want more vehicle capacity, we shouldn’t build more. Meanwhile, let’s price what capacity we DO have. Egalitarian limits to avoid extreme tolls MIGHT make sense, though folks who would be willing to spend $10 for a faster commute are probably already bidding up housing prices to avoid the commute altogether…water flows where it will.

    1. The way to “price” carbon, as you say, is to set a target amount of total emissions and let all the would-be polluters bid for their share of it. The government ideally doesn’t set the price, it sets the level.

      A freeway network with HOT lanes is nothing like this. To start with, the equivalent of a target for total emissions would be a target on total traffic volume. We set no limit on total traffic volume, so we don’t address its external costs: traffic heading to and from freeways overwhelms local street networks, even where serious resources are devoted to moving cars at the expense of other modes of transportation and quality of the environment (as in the downtowns of both Seattle and Bellevue). The road is not priced, only speed is. Even if the HOT lane is considered in isolation its usage isn’t directly limited, allowing prices to fluctuate freely — prices are set in order to influence usage and trading among users is not possible.

      As for a toll cap, clearly if the worst bottleneck for the HOT lanes is congested enough to threaten the flow of buses, there should be no price point at which Bentley McYachterson can mess it up further, right? Or if there is such a price point, it’s surely above the level that a Good2Go pass can carry? Or, to think about it another way, think about the amount of road capacity being sold and the indirect way it’s metered by price. When the amount of excess capacity to sell approaches the margin of error in determining how much excess capacity there is to sell, selling the capacity is foolish.

      In all, a bus/HOV 3+ lane whose excess vehicle capacity is auctioned off is much better than a free-for-all in all lanes. It’s not better than a simple bus/HOV 3+ lane.

      1. (I think there’s a certain brand of market-thought where people feel good about things as long as it appears to be priced correctly, and call that “efficient”. Maybe in the seriously congested scenario Bentley McYachterson truly values his time more than ST values its ability to operate buses on schedule, and he should outbid the public interest; the public takes its cash windfall and invests it in things it values more than bus operations. The market works! I’ll believe that when I see it; what’s the price of a helicopter ride to Bentley McYachterson?)

      2. Al, I agree that pricing some roads and not others is way less than perfect – I think ALL roads should be priced (and all lanes of highways, for that matter). On other topics, though, I have some comments to consider:
        – Essentially, the capacity of a highway is limited to about 1 vehicle per lane every 2 seconds through a given point. So in fact we DO set total capacity by the amount we construct.
        – We can limit usage further by – pricing. And pricing some lanes limits usage of those lanes. Pricing policies can be based on speed or usage; it’s an interesting exercise in queueing theory to think about how those relate but both are possible.
        – What pricing does is manage how that capacity gets allocated. If the price is always zero, folks willing to consume more time end up using the capacity – a corner of the solution space that may or may not be a good idea. I don’t think it is.
        – Pricing IS a way of addressing externalities (though if it’s allowed only on certain roads, it also creates externalities)
        – Pricing allows finer control and more nuance than simple restrictions – such as HOV rules. For example, a $20 / vehicle price would surely encourage high occupancy, and that can be done within some lanes, allowing others to be priced at zero, or more modestly – and with correspondingly greater chance of congestion.
        – If an HOT lane carries transit and other truly HOV’s with low delay, and also a few Bently Mc’s, is that a problem for you? I might not like him either but why not collect some of his $$, as long as the buses run on time? (Or $$ from a Jim Whitehead or Al Dimond who is late for a really important date once every 6 months and splurges on the toll lane as a result)
        – If you don’t snark about “market-thought” I won’t snark about “inequality-thought” – it’s certainly possible to think sloppily about BOTH economic efficiency AND inequality. We both care about both, and we’re both trying to avoid sloppy thinking – the point of the conversation, right?

      3. It’s not that I don’t like Mr. McYachterson. He’s a member of my country club! Stand-up fellow! Donates a lot of money to political campaigns, so if the public schools and public roads are my problem, it’s nice if they’re also his problem.

        I certainly don’t think local roads ought to be priced. They are public goods, the infrastructural underpinning of a market economy! Their free use, including by people seeking profit (delivering goods, for example), provides a public benefit so broad it’s impossible to keep track of. A good market, a “free” market (a market where people have meaningful choices), is not “free” (it costs something): it requires public investment to establish and maintain a lot of public goods, whose widespread use provides such broad public benefits!

        When the public roads break down (functionally) under excessive use by large personal vehicles we have to work a little harder to restore their necessary public function. When our local streets are as clogged with cars as they are, increasing the vehicle capacity of freeways is the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t get less wrong when the vehicles have more people in them or when the drivers fund more of the roadway construction. The big challenge is to incorporate them into a transportation system, that big public good, that makes our society one where people in all walks of life really do have meaningful freedoms. If guys like McYachterson can say, “I got mine with my $15 toll,” it’s a lot harder to get there.

      4. Public goods can certainly be priced. Public goods are still subject to commons tragedies. We already “price” roads to the extent we finance them with gas taxes, which (as many note) are a reasonable, if only partial, proxy for a usage fee. We price access to parks and forests and many other public goods too. And we’ve done so for centuries: Amsterdam’s historical density (and quaint architecture) is in part a result of pricing footprint, in the form of taxes based on the linear width of a building.

        If you were to say that getting the pricing RIGHT is a difficult, error-prone, and fraught with political problems, I would certainly agree and listen carefully to both specific objections and possible solutions. And even then there’s room for debate about the best policy for pricing. But refusing to price altogether is to discard important tools – perhaps critically important, in the case of greenhouse gas emissions.

      5. The gas tax isn’t a road usage fee for the purpose of congestion management or land use, which is what we’re talking about. It’s a convenient-to-collect tax to cover maintenance that, by chance, doubles as a (weak) pollution tax.

        Local streets are too important to the public realm and public life to sell access to them. If you’re overrun with cars reserve some space for more space-efficient or particularly important uses. Don’t ration access, build the public realm. We don’t have real squares here, we just have streets, so that’s what we have to build it out of. Bridges have often been tolled to cover their higher construction costs, and sometimes other sorts of highways… I don’t feel as strongly about them, as they aren’t so strongly in the public realm. Parking is a different matter, where you’re using a particular space, not some abstract notion of capacity. I don’t think you have to be allowed to drive down any particular public street, but if you are you shouldn’t be charged to do so.

        If we want to address carbon emissions we have a better chance to do that meaningfully in a discussion framed directly around carbon emissions rather than road space. Gases emitted on the empty rural roads of Wyoming, or even on private property, work about the same as gases emitted on the Katy Freeway or in the City of London.

        I’m still not sure how selling excess HOV lane capacity on the freeway is better than simply reserving it for transit and true carpools, by any measure I should care about.

      6. Freeway capacity is NOT a public good. Public goods are non-excludable (impossible to prevent people from using it) and non-rivalrous (one individual’s use does not reduce availability to others).

        Think firework shows, the military, and AM radio. There’s a fixed amount of freeway space and your use of that space has negative effects on others and the performance of the network. If demand exceeds supply, we should use price. Like we do for everything else.

      7. @Ruby — Nonsense. Freeway capacity is certainly a public good. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the materials if not the actual homes we live in often arrive on it. Even important business (such as Representative Bergquist’s) depend in part on it.

        The better it functions, the better it is for society. The problem, though, is that it doesn’t scale. Adding more lanes (and charging individuals to use them) is simply not very productive. In the end, it leads to a less productive society, which hurts all of us. Better, as Al said, to switch over to high capacity vehicles at that point .This is the part Bergquist got wrong or at best never addressed. His drive takes too long and he can’t afford to pay the toll. Fine. But why not take the bus? What part of that trip won’t work with a bus and why? Address that as part of your solution.

        Maybe it will never work well for him. That may be the case, But if so, then maybe he is just out of luck. Not every road road is paved. For some, paving just isn’t justified, given the number of people who are likely to drive it.

        But if he is typical — and he claims he is — then he should be thinking about how to get from one place to the other in something other than a single passenger car. This means building a system that can provide the greatest good for the greatest number. In this case, it means adding HOV 3 lanes.

      8. Ruby S is talking about a “public good” as economists use that term – non-excludable etc etc – and not just a good provided by the public or something for the benefit of the public. Freeways do not qualify as public goods for economists because you can exclude people from using it, including trucks that ship goods that benefit everyone. You could exclude everyone from it if you wanted to. And because you can exclude, you can also charge for use, and those charges would be incorporated into the prices if things that obtain a secondary benefit from the freeway as you describe.

      9. @yvrlutyens — Fair enough. My mistake. Reading his post again I realize it is very clear (I just assumed a different meaning of the term).

  10. I’ve been hearing complaints about this stretch of road from people I know who commute on it. The most valid complaint I’ve heard is that the restricted access points have created situations where buses and other vehicles are merging across many lanes of traffic in order to get in and out of the HOT lanes. I thought there were exits on the left for the most part, but there may be some points where there aren’t.

    I don’t actually see the problem with using side roads. They’re roads. There’s no edict that says you have to use the largest highway available. We should expect drivers to optimize their own trips as best they can.

    If we have money in the budget to start lifting tolls I’d rather see the Tacoma Narrows Bridge have its toll reduced.

  11. WSDOT may be presenting statistics, but I have been unable to find their data collection methodology. People are right to be suspicious of statistics with no context. We should not be surprised by the suspicion of statistics with no context when the statistics do not match people’s experience. Drivers aren’t totally clueless – cars have clocks, and people know what time they need to leave to get to their destinations on time. Everybody has their own small sample size.

    Is WSDOT measuring actual travel time, from the time you enter the onramp and fight your way across three clogged lanes and wait for an entrance to the toll lane? Or are they simply measuring average vehicle speeds and extrapolating across the corridor?

    I’ve defended the toll lanes in the past, and I will continue to do so. But I’d like to know what the data really means. WSDOT has done a terrible job of selling the lanes from the beginning, and to the people I talk to, their current efforts just sound like more spin.

    1. Fair enough that WSDOT performance reports should include methodology and context. But – do you really trust anecdotal reports from individual drivers who are by definition in frustrating circumstances? Boy do I have a placebo to sell you….

    2. I-405 Express Toll Lanes – Traffic Data

      First link at the top of the page: Raw traffic data will get you the numbers in a .xls spreadsheet format. And it’s well presented in the Publicola article linked to in the original post with updated data obtained from WSDOT. Any legislator could get the data from WSDOT simply by having a staffer pick up the phone. Gee, I wonder why they want to ignore it?

      The 520 to 405 NB ramp has a problem because they essentially removed the truck climbing lane. More center access would help and perhaps be part of an ST3 package.

      The reason for 3+ is the section north of 520. It was already gridlock before the tolling and no new lanes were striped there. So 2+ and optional toll traffic has no chance of regulating flow. Routinely in the morning the price from 405 to 6th street is $7.50. Once you get to the double HOT lanes it drops to 75 cents unless you want to use the center access ramp on 6th which will cost you about $3-4. At 75 cents the toll is barely covering the cost of collection. That cost is not just a credit card transaction; it’s the cost of administering the tolls.

      Representative Bergquist’s personal observation should be proof enough that tolling works. His commute on 405 from Renton to Bellevue where they don’t have tolling is getting steadily worse. Meanwhile, on the section where tolls are collected it’s gotten better in the GP lanes and way better in the HOV lanes (i.e. ~10 minutes on average with 15-20 not uncommon).

  12. If the lanes configuration is changed to 4 GP lanes and 1 HOV lane as the bill proposes, how will it affect the I-405 BRT proposal. The project does not seem to have any budget for adding lanes along 405 which would mean that the BRT buses would have to use the single HOV lane which used to be congested during peak hours before addition of the tolling lane.

    Along with the current Totem Lake Issaquah LRT alignment which skips downtown Bellevue and Kirkland, a single HOV lane 405 BRT will mean curtains for ST3 in East King.

    1. The HOV lane would need to be 3+ or else it would be completely useless, we’d be right back to where we started, and still be violating the 45mph law. If it’s 3+ it should run fine. So I’m not too worried about that. In fact, 3+ would probably mean even fewer cars than there are now.

  13. Did I miss something in the comments above? Because I’ve got a solution based on the most conservative measures possible, and saving millions in transit-taxpayer’s money. One, put every lane to general traffic, 24-7-365. Or only at rush hour.

    Then, have transit agencies state that in view of the massive public demand for exclusive automobile use of freeway lanes, and the out-of-control extra cost of buses stuck in traffic, being empty because the People have spoken about their transportation mode.

    Therefore, Metro and Sound Transit are required, either by law or basic financial prudence, to refrain from running any buses at all on roads where they have a hundred percent chance of being both motionless and empty. Of course, as is customary when any route is blocked, service is diverted for duration of the blockage.

    So transit service will definitely keep running on surface streets- as long as they can stay in motion there. Though if they’re not moving, at least people can either get on or off anytime they want. Food. Bathrooms. Work….In more than one blizzard, my bus was a warm shelter for people trapped away from home.

    Announcement will accord Representative Bergquist full credit for returning to motorists the lane-space they’ve paid for. And out of gratitude, offer him any other assistance he’ll request. Having already worked out the details for a network of barrier-separated transit-only lanes region-wide. With all other lanes general traffic.

    Ready to give the Representative as soon has he begs, I means ask, for them.

    Mark Dublin

  14. Meet the woman who will kill the I-405 express toll lane fix

    It’s clear that there are issues with the I-405 express toll lanes. My colleagues and I are working with WSDOT to make improvements based on the concerns that we have heard…
    While we will continue working with WSDOT to make improvements, a major overhaul is premature at this point. There have been positive effects on commute time in areas of the corridor and for our regional transit system, and we do not want to dismiss those out of hand.

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