Buses at Canyon Park on I-405
Buses at Canyon Park on I-405. Photo: WhenEliseSings

This Wednesday, February 17, the Washington State Transportation Commission will discuss toll rate options for several tolled highways in the Puget Sound. Among the changes that will be discussed are the recent calls from legislators to end tolling on I-405 on evenings, weekends, and holidays.

If you are in Olympia on Wednesday, you will have an opportunity to comment in person. Discussion of I-405 operations is scheduled for 3PM, with a public comment period at 4.45PM. As usual, the anti-tolling campaign is expected to show. Because they show up, they will appear to ‘represent’ the public unless countered.

Express toll lanes on I-405 have been an undoubted boon for transit users with faster and more reliable travel times. Notwithstanding the concerted campaign against the lanes, the ETL also helped general purpose traffic to move more quickly and more efficiently through the corridor. Sound Transit’s plans for I-405 BRT can not deliver promised results unless speed and reliability are maintained in the HOT lanes at all times that transit is operating.

Bending to political pressure, some legislators have asked to eliminate tolls after 7pm, on weekends and on holidays. Governor Inslee joined in this request at a press conference this afternoon. WSTC is responsible for approving such changes. Their first opportunity to consider the request is at Wednesday’s meeting. Whether or not WSTC accedes to this request, it is unlikely to be the last occasion anti-tolling advocates flex their muscles to reduce the effectiveness of the ETL.

At a minimum, WSTC must carefully review the effect on transit reliability of changing lane operations. Governor Inslee today acknowledged the benefits of tolling to transit users on I-405. Opening the express lanes toll-free to SOVs at “off-peak” times risks having transit and HOV users stuck in traffic. There is traffic after 7pm too. The revenue reduction would also reduce WSDOT’s capacity to invest further in the HOT lanes.

We note the more ambitious agenda for the HOT lanes offered by Doug MacDonald in the Seattle Times. MacDonald suggests aggressively re-investing toll revenues, and diverting other highway funds as necessary, to complete building out the ETL lanes. That includes lanes between Bellevue and Renton, and the second lane north of SR 522. WSDOT and local officials should coordinate closely with transit agencies to maximize performance of the HOT lanes for transit and drivers alike. Finally, he argues that we should “treat citizens who use our transportation system with at least minimal respect. If people are willing to pay for the roads they need, for goodness sake, let them. Then use that toll money to improve traffic and make it easier for everyone to get where they want and need to go”. We couldn’t agree more.

If you’re unable to attend in person, you may comment in writing or by email. It won’t do as much for media coverage, but it’s helpful to let commissioners know that transit advocates and users of the HOT lanes (whether transit or auto) are willing to speak up for the benefits of the lanes.

The complete meeting agenda is here. The meeting is at the WSDOT HQ Building in the Commission Boardroom. The address is 310 Maple Park Ave SE, Olympia WA.

22 Replies to “ACTION ALERT: Comment on Tolling at the WSTC”

  1. Wish I was one of these that have had this positive experience.

    “Express toll lanes on I-405 have been an undoubted boon for transit users with faster and more reliable travel times. Notwithstanding the concerted campaign against the lanes, the ETL also helped general purpose traffic to move more quickly and more efficiently through the corridor. Sound Transit’s plans for I-405 BRT can not deliver promised results unless speed and reliability are maintained in the HOT lanes at all times that transit is operating.”

    1. When people parrot the WS-DOT contention that “the ETL also helped general purpose traffic to more more quickly and more efficiently through the corridor” they lose their credibility. The reality is that there is increased congestion in the general purpose lanes including at times and days when there was no previous congestion. I’m sure that by carefully selecting the data WS-DOT can find a few cases to support their contention but as a blanket statement it’s simply not true and congestion has clearly been worsened by the elimination of merge lanes. The lack of candor and forthrightness is what has made so many people angry and got the politicians on the attack. And proves that when you build roads for transit or HOV they are vulnerable to being “stolen” back to general purpose unmanaged traffic…

  2. Not much excuse for not being there. 10 minute ride on Intercity Transit. Good time, however long the project will take, to make this a frequent, reliable, at most one hour trip from Seattle on something blue, white, and fast.

    But need STB’s best info as to the realities underneath the exaggerated events around the I-405 opening. Especially what’s the most promising way to keep transit fast as and smooth as possible.

    As fast as possible. I wonder if better stated goal would be to a higher minimum transit speed limit, like 50 or 55mph. Low mark seems to excuse lower results.

    As Republicans have done us a favor by proving, in politics there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by compromising in advance on matters like this. Based on both recent and decades-long political history, eventual reasonable results demand present-time manners of the enemy. With better information.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I haven’t experienced 405 post-tolling myself but people tell me that it added two or three entrance-lane merges between 520 (west to north) and 116th. Entering traffic used to have their own lane; now they merge into the right lane. That slows everyone down, and that’s compounded by people crossing all the other lanes between the exits and the HOT lanes. So if WSDOT can minimize the number of merges, that would help things. The crossing all other lanes to get to the HOT lanes is more difficult because it would require expensive enter/exit ramps to the HOT lanes, but that’s the intrinsic problem with left-side express lanes. Then there’s the bottleneck north of 522.

      The HOT lanes must remain above 45 mph at all times, period. Especially if we’re thinking about BRT there. And WSDOT is also a party to the BRT, since it was designed into the widening plan (e.g., potential stations).

  3. There’s some good information on the slideshow on 405 tolls (on the link to the agenda). Looks like WSDOT has some wish lists to what else they want to do: add a NB lane from 520 to Kirkland and between I-5 and 527.

    The other slideshow was very informative as well (the one about other managed lanes across the country) since it showed what worked, didn’t work and how they fixed it across other systems.

    I really want to go and say something, but after reading the slideshows I feel like I wouldnt contribute anything else meaningful that wasn’t already said in the presentation? The commission should be listening to the experts anyway on this matter – not citizen rants.

    1. If you can, GO and TESTIFY! Leg & leaders have been reacting based on public feedback, not expert analysis. Hearing that there are members of the public that support a reliable trip for transit is very important.

  4. The press conference by Inslee and the statement released by Bill Bryant give a good insight on where the candidates stand on importance of transit in the state’s transportation policy.

  5. What is the effect on the State’s contract with the company that is contracted to manage the tolling if the ground rules change and there are no tolls collected after 7PM? If there’s no penalty then it seems like a no brainer to open the lanes free to all, which I’ve seen occasionally on SR167. It’s rather petty to be collecting a 75 cent toll when something like 59 cents goes to the company doing the tolling.

    The big problem is the single HOT lane north of 522. Since revenue is well above what was expected WSDOT should definitely be presenting a plan that outlines what improvements can be made and when by using the toll revenue to secure bonds and start showing actual improvements from that money ASAP!

    One thing I’ve noticed with the variable tolling is how quickly it can react to maintain HOV speeds when there’s a backup in the GP lanes. I think it’s also had the effect of smoothing peak demand. Prior to tolling you had to leave about 30 minutes earlier if you wanted a decent chance of having a faster commute. With tolling it’s graduated; you can leave 10 minutes sooner and pay $2 less in tolls or 20 minutes and pay $5 less. For those that had previously padded their commute by 30 minutes they can likely cut that back to say 25 minutes and have the same level of confidence in travel times in the GP lanes.

    FYI, if you want to look at snap shots of the 405 traffic maps you can find them here.

  6. I am far from politics and not a voter in WA, but I see this through the general tax system prism. If we toll 405, this allows us to collect more money from those who drive a lot, and lower the taxes on everything else (well, in practice probably just postpone the next tax rise.) So we have a tradeoff between more expensive roads and and more expensive everything else.

    From the efficiency point of view, I would go for tolling roads (not just 405 and not just express lines) as tolls are more-or-less paid by the actual road users, and eliminate time wasted in traffic. But this is only true if collecting the tolls is cheap enough. I also cannot believe one can introduce such reforms as toll lines in a way there are no losers. Some people are always worse off and like to tell it loud.

    From my personal point of view I definitely prefer lower sales tax to free roads.

    I would love to know if such thoughts may have any influence for politicians :-)

    1. Tolls in WA are earmarked for the corridor on which they are collected. In the case of the tolls on 405 there is way more worked needed to fully implement HOT lanes than is readily available. Further, since the money is earmarked for roads the only potential tax that would be deferred by tolling would be an increase in the gas tax. Perhaps you feel a reduction in that paid for by user fees is justified but one thing the gas tax does is incentivize a decrease in the use of fossil fuels through the purchase of higher mileage cars or electric vehicles.

      1. People complain about higher gas prices, but pay for it anyway no matter how much is charged. I’m not sure a slight increase in the gas tax really makes and difference other than screaming and yelling at the elected official level.

        Tolling a piece of infrastructure (bridge, new lanes, etc.) at the price it costs to build it definitely indicates people are mostly not willing to pay for the infrastructure their lifestyle demands.

      2. Why do you say it can only affect gas tax? I haven’t checked the hard facts but there are many claims that the gas tax only accounts for 50% coming from then? I also remember the last federal interstate funding plan (called FAST afair) involved business taxes and playing with certain strategic reserves (not really a tax but trading risks for money.)

      3. At the local city/county level roads are primarily paid for by property taxes. But tolls are collected by the State and earmarked for paying down the corridor on which they are collected. But it’s a moot point because no road/bridge/tunnel ever collects enough to cover it’s cost so there is no “extra money” to offset anything. FWIW the tolls on the original 520 bridge were removed ahead of schedule because the story was it had paid for its self early. Of course even if that were true the tolls did nothing to pay the huge expense of constant patching over the years to keep it afloat until new ferrocement hulls could be built to replace it.

      4. But were does the the state get it’s money for road projects? Solely from gas tax + a bit of tolls? Is it really true that no other taxes go to supplement WA road budget?

      5. Finance Explained

        Funding for operating, maintaining, preserving, and improving Washington’s highways and ferry system comes from motor vehicle fuel taxes, licenses, permits, and fees, tolling, ferry fares, federal and local funds, and bonding.

        If you want a more detailed answer you need to look at a specific project. But the fact remains there is no excess money from tolling that can be used to offset any other tax or potential tax increase because the amount collected doesn’t come close to paying the cost of the corridor it’s collected on. Tolls are simply a way to make sausage so that a project can get funded in the first place.

  7. So how does this backlash meet the reality of the lanes needing to operate at 45 mph? Just because some of the motorists who clog up the freeway whine, does that make the Federal requirement go away?

  8. Even if traffic may still exist after 7 PM, the transit system (at least at present) mostly shuts down. The only bus route in the ETL corridor that runs at all during this time is the 535. And, even that, at a pretty skeletal level of service – weekday evenings, every 30 minutes northbound, once an hour southbound. Saturdays, it runs once an hour all day. And, Sundays, there is zero transit in the express toll lanes, period.

    Implementing lane restrictions to protect transit from traffic is completely pointless during periods where the transit that runs in those lanes doesn’t exist. And nearly pointless when the “transit” to be protected is just one bus route running at half-hourly or hourly frequency.

  9. One other advantage of the free after 7PM rule is that it will tend to push choice trips like shopping out of the 6:30-7:00PM time slot which in theory should help the GP lanes toward the end of peak.

  10. Dan Ryan has nicely nailed this. I’m glad to be paying as close attention as I can and speaking out every way I can. I do believe there is value in writing a letter. I sent this one in this morning

    /Users/dougmacdonald/Desktop/Reema Griffith 2 17 2016.doc

    If this link doesn’t work, I’ll happily try to share in another form.

    Meanwhile I am convinced that the data fairly assessed (we’re having a little problem getting this message out as effectively as must be done, against the flack attack from the nay side) clearly shows overall benefit of the new express toll lanes to overall travel performance in the corridor. Transit is a big piece of that (“transit” here including everything from ST to CT to Microsoft Connector to van pools) and will be even more important in the future. As I say in my letter today, on this one “the nays do not have it” The fight to save and take full advantage of express toll lanes on I-405 is very important as a cornerstone of sane transportation policy. Let’s keep right on making the point.

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