Under political pressure from Republicans in the Legislature, WSDOT is paring back the express toll lanes on I-405. If approved by the WSTC, the lanes would be open to all drivers without tolls on evenings and weekends.
In the Senate, SB 6152 passed out of committee on Wednesday. The bill emphasizes that the imposition of tolls is authorized for a two-year period only. The bill would prohibit tolls between 7pm and 5am, on weekends, and on all federal and state holidays. The bill even micromanages lane access, requiring that WSDOT continue to expand the length of the access and exit points to the express toll lanes. Earlier language that would have converted one of the ETL lanes between Bellevue and Bothell to a general purpose lane was dropped.
In the House, companion bill HB 2312 has not gotten out of committee (the deadline is Tuesday). However, House Democrats wrote WSDOT Tuesday evening requesting several of the changes in the Senate Bill. The changes were agreed with WSDOT. WSDOT should “eliminate tolls during evening non-peak hours, weekends, and holidays, to the extent that such a change will improve commuters’ experience on I-405” (thereby giving WSDOT some flexibility in setting hours of operation). The letter also suggests a long list of operational changes. Most notably, WSDOT is to consider “re-instating” a general purpose lane on NB I-405 between SR 520 and NE 70th St, where an exit lane was converted to general purpose use to make room for the ETL. WSDOT is also to modify the highway north of SR 522 to allow shoulder-running (the implications for ST and CT buses that already run on the shoulder here are unclear). The timing of the changes depends on Federal Highway Administration approval, but WSDOT is to report to the Legislature within six months on the impacts.
I-405 tolling, less than five months after introduction, has become a partisan football.
Notwithstanding its unpopularity with some SOV drivers (at least those who don’t use the lanes), it has been rather successful in managing traffic. Travel times in both the express and general purpose lanes are better, saving drivers 14 minutes in the express lanes and 7 minutes southbound in the regular lanes. Bus riders have seen improved speed and reliability. Community Transit riders save six minutes at peak times, while Metro riders are saving eight minutes. After just a few months, ridership is up 4% on CT, and 6% on Metro routes in the corridor.
But there have been difficulties for some drivers in the general purpose lanes. Northbound GP-lane drivers in PM peak benefit less, as improved speeds south of SR 522 are offset by a difficult merge where five lanes converge to just three. (Ironically, the added HOT lane south of SR 522 gets drivers to the choke-point more quickly exacerbating pressures there). Drivers using the highway for short distances complain about infrequent access points to the HOT lanes. Elsewhere, highway configuration changes have moved congestion points around, creating a perception that traffic is bad in places where it previously wasn’t.
Payment snafus, delays in processing pass orders, and long hold times on customer service lines have left customers disgruntled. Much political capital was squandered through failures in implementation.
Demand has been high, far outrunning projections. 170,000 passes have been distributed, more than double the expected number for the first year. Tolls have hit the $10 maximum several times, generally on rainy days. But WSDOT points out that the majority of toll-payers are paying the minimum and only 8% are paying more than $4. High demand means that revenues have run ahead of projections, so it is less likely that the lost revenues from toll-free operations on nights and weekends would cause the project to miss its financial targets.
Transit service on the corridor is peak-oriented, and cannot use the HOT lanes north of SR 522 anyway because of flyer stops and right-side exits. Even Sound Transit’s I-405 BRT would not use the HOT lanes beyond Bothell in the low-capital configuration, though they would in the intensive-capital model. But it is obvious that transit riders’ interests are not getting much attention in Olympia.
HOT lanes have become the whipping boy for a deeper set of problems that predate the ETL. Traffic volumes are increasing across the region, and nowhere more so than on I-405. Housing growth in the central Eastside has not kept up with the region’s booming job centers. South Snohomish County (and South King County) is increasingly where Eastside workers go to find affordable housing. The outcome is sprawling residential development far from employment centers. The middling density of land use means these places are poorly served by transit. The effect on I-405 traffic was clear long before the toll lanes opened, with delays on the corridor increasing 46% just between 2012 and 2014.
When I-405 tolling was introduced, it was anticipated lawmakers would give WSDOT two years before second-guessing the results. Even if the bills proceed no further, WSDOT is once again on notice that suburban legislators have cold feet about traffic management. Building more unmanaged general purpose lanes is politically easier than managing traffic on existing lanes.
The changes to tolling operations this week are not yet fatal. Tolling remains in place at the busiest time, and lawmakers have not attempted to restore HOV-2 at peak. But the anti-tolling lobby has organized effectively. Sound Transit’s I-405 BRT proposals assume WSDOT will maintain 45 mph speeds in the corridor, not only north of Bellevue, but in the soon-to-be-built lanes south of Bellevue. Buses on I-5 are subject to increasing delays in the overloaded HOV-2 lanes. The plans of the transit agencies, and needs of their riders, are not figuring prominently in this debate.