Future expansion of I-405 would add two more HOT lanes from SR 522 (pictured) to SR 527 (Image: WSDOT)

As Sound Transit steps up planning for I-405 BRT, WSDOT is preparing to extend managed HOT lanes from Bellevue south to Renton. Meanwhile, a political consensus in favor of tolling has solidified. After an unsteady start, managed lanes have grown more popular with the public. Eastside cities are recognizing both the benefits in managing traffic and the need for toll revenue to fund future capacity expansion. Eastside cities have joined with transit agencies and local employers to lobby for continued tolling and an expansion of toll lanes at the north end.

Current and planned express toll lanes on I-405 and SR 167 (image: WSDOT)

The first HOT lanes (high-occupancy toll) in the region opened on SR 167 in 2008. In 2015, another 15 miles of HOT lanes opened on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood. Throughput on the lanes is maximized with a combination of free HOV-3 and tolling for other vehicles. The former HOV-2 lanes were badly congested as too many vehicles qualified to use the lane, but HOV-3 alone would leave the lanes under-used. Tolling balances traffic by allowing just enough other cars into the HOT lane so it is used efficiently, but not overwhelmed. Raising the HOV limit to three occupants at peak hours, however, did make the lanes unpopular with former two-person carpoolers.

In Renton, construction is underway on HOV-to-HOV ramps between I-405 and SR 167. Those will open for traffic in 2019, enabling higher occupancy vehicles to avoid the weave across several lanes of general purpose traffic. Construction then begins on widening I-405 to create two HOT lanes in each direction between Bellevue and SR 167. A fifth of the $1.175 billion cost is funded from future tolls. Completion of the Bellevue-Renton HOT lanes in 2024 will enable Sound Transit to operate BRT on this corridor.

Between Bothell and Lynnwood, the highway narrows to just one HOT lane and two general purpose lanes in each direction. Demand for the HOT lanes is so high that they often fail to clear even with tolls at the statutory maximum of $10. Toll revenues funded a shoulder lane between SR 527 and I-5 that opened in April 2017. That significantly improved operations in the northbound direction, increasing vehicle throughput in the general-purpose lanes and reducing toll rates. The cost was a low $11 million. Future planned improvements in the I-405 Master Plan have higher price tags and currently lack state funding, but could be paid for by future tolling.

It is against this background that the continued operation of managed lanes is being debated. All the major Eastside cities, the transit agencies on the corridor, and many large employers, have joined in lobbying the Legislature. They seek continued tolling along the corridor and an expansion of the HOT lanes north of Bothell. Two recent joint letters lay out the interests of local stakeholders.

Transit providers joined in one letter with King and Snohomish Counties and several of the major cities on I-405 (Bellevue, Kirkland, Renton). The letter describes at some length the improvements in traffic operations in the corridor from tolling, and the need for tolling to operate BRT. Signatories emphasize their continued support of the I-405 Corridor Program and asks that the Legislature extend and establish authorizations for operation of tolling along I-405. Because operation of express toll lanes offers the most effective throughput for all highway users, they support toll operations to Renton with the added HOT lane, adding a second express toll lane in both directions through the 405/522 interchange and north to SR 527; and use of managed lanes to serve Sound Transit BRT.

A second letter is from the North I-405 Stakeholder Group. The group comprises nine cities (including every city on the highway from Bellevue to I-5) and several local legislators along with major employers in the Bothell area. They are seeking an acceleration of WSDOT’s construction of a second HOT lane in each direction from SR 522 to SR 527. Pay-as-you-go toll revenues can fund an added southbound HOT lane by 2028 and northbound by 2033. WSDOT could feasibly deliver both by 2024 if funding were available. The Stakeholder group emphasizes the demand to accelerate delivery of the extra HOT lanes so that they are open before BRT operations commence in 2024.

HOT lanes between Bellevue and Lynnwood are handily meeting speed performance standards except soutbound into Bothell. (image: WSDOT)

The lanes face one more hurdle in the Legislature. The enabling legislation specified two performance standards to be met to continue operations. One, generating enough revenue to cover operating costs, was easily exceeded. The second, maintaining vehicle speeds in the lanes above 45 mph during 90% of peak hours, was easily met in the dual HOT lane section, but has been challenged by inadequate capacity southbound between I-5 and SR 522. In the southbound single-lane section where demand is too high for a single tolled lane, the speed standard is met just 63% of the time.

The miss on speed standards has been an easy talking point for tolling opponents, but stakeholders in the corridor recognize they need tolling revenues to fund a second HOT lane in that area. A reversion to the failed HOV-2 lanes would mean losing the traffic management benefits of tolling and no more capacity. Even as some legislators make noises about the miss on the speed standard, the Legislature funded preliminary engineering to expand the lanes north of SR 522, and the Renton-Bellevue work is funded and proceeding without interference. Legislators from outside the region are unlikely to support statewide taxes to replace foregone toll revenues. Bonding of toll revenues could accelerate work on the Bothell lanes if legislators commit to tolling for the duration of the bonds.

Improvements at the north end of the corridor would improve transit performance too by improving speeds and allowing greater transit use of the HOT lanes. Adding a second HOT lane would allow direct access to the HOT lanes at SR 522 and SR 527, greatly reducing the time Sound Transit’s BRT operates in general purpose lanes.

Peter Rogoff made explicit, at the October meeting of the I-405 Executive Advisory Group, how legislators would prevent BRT from operating if they undermined the managed lane system. “If the traffic’s not going to move, there will be no rapid in bus rapid transit, there will be no high in high capacity transit, and we would have to completely rethink the investment as a Board. So I hope to be able to communicate that to those that want to revisit the regime at this point because frankly our whole plans for the I-405 BRT are premised on the facts that the lane has got to move.

The theoretical benefits of tolling have been validated by two years of experience. Legislators took some lumps from constituents as tolling was introduced, and WSDOT made some significant concessions including dropping tolls on nights and weekends. But the experiment has largely worked as designed. With high travel demand in the corridor powered by the boom in residential growth in South Snohomish County, the north end of I-405 remains very congested. Both transit users and the drivers paying up to $10 each way will benefit from expansion of the HOT lane system.

21 Replies to “Eastside cities & transit agencies lobby for tolling on I-405”

  1. it’s bizarre that southbound into Bothell is the segment that is struggling. I thought it would be northbound into Bothell, as usually congestion occurs whenever a freeway loses a lane (or two, in this case). Does the peak-only shoulder lane make that much of a difference for northbound in Bothell during the afternoon commute? I thought the HOT lane northbound basically ground to a halt around Lynnwood during peak afternoon?

    One thing to note when looking at the high costs of the Bellevue to Renton expansion ($1.175 billion) is that whenever WSDOT is 1) acquiring property or 2) rebuilding under/overpasses and bridges, they are actually widening the ROW to accommodate not only the 2 new HOT lanes but also additional GP lanes to be added latter. So the current project includes a pull forward of some spending on the next phase of construction, when 405 will go from 2HOT&2GP to 2HOT&3GP.

    1. Via the University of Minnesota study, I gather the NB GP lanes have gradually given back much of the speed gains they saw after the shoulder-lane opened. But it’s still a lot of throughput benefit, and enough to take the pressure off the HOT lane. A year ago, WSDOT was hopeful the shoulder lane would help with the NB bottleneck at SR 522, but they appear surprised after launch by how well it worked.

      1. Makes sense, but what about Southbound? Why is that so backed up before Bothell? Is there simply that much traffic going into 405 from I5 and 527?

      2. I believe it’s merging traffic from the ramps. Particularly the bridge over the 522 is extremely narrow and cars slow down even on weekends. But 405 basically runs at capacity. The only part of the express lanes that slows down south of 522 is the merge with the 128th St ramps. There’s not even that much traffic coming in, but combine that with what’s already on the road and things just slow down.

  2. Great piece Dan, and I generally agree with you. I’m wondering though where the graphic of the proposed 522-405 interchange comes from. It looks like what’s being proposed there is to replace the current interchange with 3 traffic lights on 522. That’s going to cause all sorts of changes, because I’m guessing you’re going to need to drop down speed limits on 522 substantially to support this sort of design. That’s going to slow things down substantially, especially if traffic backs up from the interchange.

    I agree something needs to be done, but I’d rather they do it right the first time (treating 522 and 405 as highways and adding direct access ramps). I don’t think this is the area where 522 needs to be slowed down – there’s nothing walkable around there nor will there be anytime soon given the amount of land available not under a huge interchange.

    1. I think if you are going from 405 north to 522 east, or 522 west to 405 south, you will not go through a signaled interchange, so that should handle most of the traffic between 405&522?

      1. Yes, it’s only 405N -> 522W and 522E->405N that you need to make turns instead of ramps. My concern is more through traffic. Three traffic lights in a rows is something I’d expect to see on an arterial, not a 2 lane divided highway with 60 mph speed limits. It means dropping speed limits (I assume) and perhaps back up blocking up the ramps. I’m assuming a full study will be done to see how this will affect things.

  3. Either I’m not seeing this, or the maps aren’t showing it. If memory serves, and it’s been awhile, will buses still have to cross right-ward across GP traffic to stop at Canyon Park?

    Worst maneuver in system, insult to transit drivers, passengers, motorists and schedules alike. So if problem is still there, worth a lot of money to fix. If not- much appreciation.

    Mark Dublin

    1. With the current single HOT lanes north of SR 522, ST BRT buses would operate in the GP lanes everywhere north of Brickyard. With the second HOT lane, the buses would gain direct access ramps at SR 522 and at SR 527. That would mostly get them out of GP lanes, except that they’d still need to cross to get to I-5 to access Lynnwood TC.

      Page 64 of this deck has the Canyon Park station that would be included with the second HOT lane.

      David, the same deck on pages 60-63 has the phased build-out of the SR 522/I-405 intersection. I’m not sure there’s an alternative to signalizing SR 522 because the direct access ramps need to fit in the vertically constrained space between the wetlands and the existing flyover ramps.

      1. I’m guessing the construction of 2 HOT lanes doesn’t depend on building the 527 direct access ramps but if you’re going to do it you may as well do it at the same time.

        Signalizing 522 is going to add substantial delay. Both from the traffic lights and from backup blocking the 405 ramps. At that point, is a direct access ramp even worth it? There’s no HOV/HOT lanes on 522 and I doubt there will be (or needs to be) anytime soon. Any buses serving 522 are going to serve brickyard as well, which means they can’t use the direct access ramps unless you add a direct access ramp at Brickyard. This seems kind of pointless, particularly given the delays.

    2. Yes, unless they build direct access ramps at 527. And you’re still missing them at Brickyard/160th and 195th. The latter two have to be built together but 527 can be built spearately. I’d probably argue that Brickyard is the worst one, since it requires crossing 4 lanes of traffic while Canyon Park is only 3 lanes.

      1. If ST Express declares these lane-crossings a safety hazard and refuses to stop anywhere they have to cross multiple lanes of traffic to do so….do Canyon Park and Brickyard patrons, and every motorists affected have enough votes in the Legislature get either those bus ramps or a bridge each from a center platform?

        MD

  4. Better idea. ‘Til bus ramps or pedestrian bridges are built, provide very-short-headway van service to closest express stop.

    Or if distance is out of van-range, local 30′ or 40’ buses timed to meet express bus, with radio connection between drivers. I want a precedent set: Buses called “Express” don’t have to cross lanes twice (on and off) per stop. Anywhere, any time.

    Mark

    1. Indeed, and since we’re still calling it BRT, BRT most definitely shouldn’t have to cross multiple traffic lanes to make a stop!

  5. Hey, look, it’s an increase in freeway capacity! Hey, look, more obscene interchanges and local road expansions making nearby neighborhoods unwalkable for generations! Hey, look, a wider freeway and bigger interchanges fouling walksheds of ST3’s big eastside express-bus project!

    Some people must think carbon works like those famously dubious calorie counting exercises, with endless scenarios where, “It doesn’t count if…” The carbon doesn’t count if cars are tolled! It might count negative if the tolling is demand-responsive! Or if they hang variable (advisory) speed-limit signs! Or if they added bus lanes and bike paths — maybe we’ll use them someday! As long as there’s something that’s working smoothly we can distract ourselves from the one big truth: the carbon always counts. We need to be contracting freeways and closing interchanges, not expanding them.

  6. “After an unsteady start, managed lanes have grown more popular with the public”.

    The link is to an unpublished WSDOT online survey. The facts on the ground appear that the public is still pressuring their representatives to unwind the tolls.

    1. More specifically, the fraction of the public that’s vocal about it is pressuring their representatives. I was just talking to someone who sort of likes the toll lanes, but she hasn’t written her representatives at all, probably because she doesn’t feel that strongly about them.

  7. Mark mentioned the big problem with this corridor up above. It isn’t the average speeds (although they could use improvement) it is the stops themselves. The speeds mentioned may be aggravatingly slow, but in general are relatively fast. But serving every stop isn’t.

    Consider the section from Lynnwood to Bellevue. There are five stops in between. One of these is new, so I will assume it is ideal. I hope it will be built like the Mountlake Terrace stop — buses exit the HOV lanes onto a bus only lane, stop inline, then go again.

    The Totem Lake stop is unusual. A bus travels in much the same way, exiting from the HOV lane into a HOV only bus stop. But there is a stop light before going again. 30 MPH seems horribly slow when on the freeway (especially while in the HOV lane) but that means that it takes a couple minutes to go a mile. It could easily take that long just to serve this stop, even when there is no traffic.

    But it is much worse for the other three stops. In all three cases, a bus has to exit the HOV/HOT lane, move several lanes over and go in the slowest of all lanes (the far right). Then it exits, waits for a stop light, drops off riders, and gets back on the freeway. But it is once again in the far right lane, so it spends a lot of extra time working its way over to the HOV/HOT lane.

    Then there is the connection between northbound I-5 and southbound I-405. So far as I know, this again involves moving into the general purpose lanes. The Lynnwood Transit Center has ramps to the HOV lanes (which is great) but almost immediately the bus has to get in the turn lane, which is general purpose (and on the right).

    That is a lot of time spent in the general purpose lanes. Seven times if my math is right. Once to get onto I-405, three times to exit for the three outside stations, and three times after serving the
    outside stations. Oh, and four traffic lights. That is a lot of time spent in traffic, or stopped at traffic lights.

    I feel like ST is worried about the wrong thing. Off board payment is great, but really not much of an issue for a suburban run like this. The vast majority of folks pay with ORCA. Of course it is faster if they just walk on — but it represents a small portion of the time spent on a run like this. Likewise with the HOV/HOT changes. Of course they make things faster. But overall, that isn’t why this will be slow. An express bus that simply starts at Lynnwood and stops in Bellevue (with no stops in between) using the current slog of HOV lanes, and the current change fumblers, would be fairly fast. Much faster — every moment of the day — then the so called BRT line even if they add HOV/HOT lanes.

    Which leaves a couple options. First is to spend money building the infrastructure necessary to make this a fast run. That would require leadership. Folks in the suburbs spending some money on this project, along with the state chipping in for the rest. That didn’t happen, and likely won’t happen. Instead we have trains to Issaquah and Cascade High School.

    The other option is express buses. Ideally you would have a series of overlapping express buses, all serving a common station or two, so that folks getting from one place to the other don’t have to backtrack. Unfortunately, the worse stops are all clustered together. If NE 195th was a freeway station, things would be a lot simpler. All the buses could just stop there and at 85th before Bellevue. That way it wouldn’t be a long trip to get from say, Canyon Park to Lynnwood (you would just backtrack via NE 195th). But that isn’t the case, nor is it the case for any of the stops north of Totem Lake.

    I think the simplest, best thing to do is just have a handful of express overlays. Run the I-405 BRT all day (as was the plan), but don’t run it more often during rush hour. Normally a run that is connecting suburban freeway stops would run a lot more often during peak. But instead you should run the express bus routes during peak, and keep running the I-405 BRT every 15 minutes (which I assume is the plan for midday service). In that sense, it is a bit like 510, 511, 512. In the case of Everett and Lynnwood, express buses (510 and 511) run during rush hour, and the bus that goes to each stop runs during the day. In this case, the bus that goes to each stop (the I-405 BRT) would still run — just not more often than it would at noon. So folks can still get from one suburban stop to another, as they would during the day (just not more often during rush hour).

    Express overlay buses could then be connected to the neighborhoods. For example, a bus could start at Edmonds CC (thus connecting to SR 99), go to Lynnwood, and then on to Bellevue directly (no stops between Lynnwood and Bellevue).

    In general this isn’t the most efficient way to operate the buses, but it is much better for the riders. The I-405 BRT line could serve the last three stops (Brickyard, Totem Lake and NE 85th) since there is a very small penalty to serve those three. If you want (or need) more runs during rush hour, then you simply run a truncated version of that bus (starting at Brickyard). You would then need three more express buses. That is more expensive, but not much more than upping the headways of the I-405 BRT to levels that (hopefully) will be needed to handle the riders. The 532 runs every ten minutes, and the buses are full. I think you could have express service on all the stations running at rush hour (along with I-405 BRT) and fill each of the buses. Ideally you time the express buses to run in between the I-405 BRT. That is way if you miss the express, you could catch the slower BRT bus.

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