I-405 Express Toll Lane VMS testing

On Dec. 10th Sen. Guy Palumbo (D – Maltby/Bothell) prefiled a bill to end the High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on I-405. Although most transportation experts would line up to slay this bill, its passage — which is not likely — may actually be a good outcome for transit.

The bill doesn’t return the highway to the old, clogged status quo of one HOV-2 lane.  Instead, the unwidened stretch north of NE 160th St would be HOV-3. The recently expanded segment between Bothell and Bellevue would change to one lane of HOV-3 and one of HOV-2.

The current configuration is HOV-3 during peak hours and HOV-2 at other times, plus anyone willing to pay the toll.

Abolishing HOT lanes is clearly worse for drivers who place a high value on their time, whether affluent ones paying for convenience or poorer people who face severe penalties for being late. But as a transit advocate, I’m not in the business of fighting hard for driving improvements that drivers may or may not want.

Instead, the bill would clearly help buses north of Bothell, as they would still contend with HOV-3 vehicles but not tollpayers. The lanes would not revert to HOV-2 during off-peak periods. Onward to Bellevue, the overall impact on vehicle volumes over the two lanes is unclear; however, a single HOV-3 lane with no tollpayers will likely be free-flowing for transit.

Even if this bill gains momentum, the process can always make it worse. Any scheme to set aside road space for transit can be a victim of lackadaisical enforcement, whether by SPD or the State Patrol. On the other hand, this bill is a laudable attempt at addressing social-justice concerns about tolling, mollifying the HOV-2 lobby that opposes necessary rule-tightening, and still making the overall situation better for buses.

For a legislator from the outer suburbs, Sen. Palumbo has intersected with transit and land use issues quite often. He may be best known to many housing advocates for proposing (but not yet filing) one of the most ambitious housing bills of this generation, which would establish minimum densities around high-capacity transit. In the transit realm, he was one of the Democratic defectors who voted for an elected Sound Transit board. STB diehards may remember his column here five years ago about taxi services.

60 Replies to “New Bill Would End I-405 Tolling”

  1. As a weekday user of the I-405 HOT lanes, I hope his bill goes down in flames. The revenue from the toll lanes is what is funding all of the improvements to I-405 (afternoon shoulder driving lanes, SR522 interchange improvements, etc). Did you consider where is this money going to come from if this bill passes?

    1. As an engineer with some background in transportation, I’ll harken back to what one of my college professors describes as the “If you build it, they will come,” scenario. As long as we keep building road improvements and capacity, including those funded by the HOT lanes, more and more people will use the road, and continually add trips. People need to stop commuting so darned far, and, if they do, transit needs to be a serious consideration. Improving 405 (or any other freeway) only encourages more and longer commutes.

      1. I would love to commute shorter but I pay $800 a month in rent for my one-bedroom apartment in Sumner. If I lived closer I would pay a lot more. When I started searching for housing I started in Redmond and moved South until I found something I could afford in an area I was comfortable living. I would love to take a train 2 Redmond but I’m not going to sit on a bus for three times longer than it takes me to drive. It’s Criminal how long it takes to build anything and how much it cost to build anything in this state

      2. Brian,
        I hear ya!!! I’ve actually been in those shoes before.
        Time to find a job close to the cheap housing. It took me several years to do it, but it was a long, long job hunt that has really paid off in a shorter commute, more time with my family, and improved opportunities over the rat race I dealt with at a former employer. You won’t regret it.

    2. I’m really not interested in ensuring the money to fund additional highway improvements. For people deeply concerned about climate change, denying WSDOT more capacity-increasing highway projects is a good thing.

      1. They next decade of 405 improvements are nearly all for HOV and Transit riders. The next SOV expansion for 405 is a long ways off. Killing off improvements needed to ensure 405 BRT and all South King East King routes function well is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

        Unless the HOV lanes between Renton and Bellevue also become HOV-3, this is a clear loser for transit.

      2. https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/I405/RentontoBellevue/home

        This is happening from Bellevue to Renton as well. It was not included in the first phase of the I-405 tolling project probably because widening the current 3 lanes is going to be a big undertaking. But looks like they’re doing it right.

        Current: 1 HOV / 2 SOV lane per direction
        Future: 2 HOT / 2 SOV lane per direction

        Construction starts 2019 (ouch!) and finishes 2024 (in time for I-405 BRT). This will make I-405 BRT worth doing (though even running the 405 BRT route on today’s road will be much faster, since BRT will take the non-metered-by-necessity entrance to 405 in Renton).

        Presumably the HOV2/HOV3 rules and times will be the same as north of Bellevue. Since they both have two lanes, they both have the same flexibility to adapt to changes like this bill proposes.

      3. BRT is being held hostage to finishing the lanes north of Bothell. If we don’t get the lanes, the buses won’t be fast.

      4. the same 2015 statewide package that authorized ST3 also FUNDED many limited access highway projects (e.g., SR-520, I-405, SR-509, north-south Spokane, etc.). Could that new capacity be tolled?

      5. @Mike: you need more than just HOT lanes north of Bothell to ensure reliable buses. You also need direct access ramps at 160th, 522, 195th, and 527. That’s even more money that I doubt will ever get allocated.

      6. @Mike: you need more than just HOT lanes north of Bothell to ensure reliable buses. You also need direct access ramps at 160th, 522, 195th, and 527. That’s even more money that I doubt will ever get allocated.

        Maybe, maybe not. The current legislature would certainly fund those projects. Just not right now. We just passed a big transportation project. But building a bunch of ramps is generally pretty cheap. If you look at the last big transportation package, it had lots and lots of relatively inexpensive improvements like the ones you propose. It was full of those. But unfortunately, what took up the bulk of the proposal was a really stupid project designed to please south Sound representatives: The 509-167 expansion (https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Gateway/default.htm expansion). Take away that project and you have nothing but projects like the ones you want. That means that a few years from now, just from gas tax revenue, we should be able to fund all of the little improvements that make a big difference for buses. That is because we will be done with the big projects (unless someone comes up with another stupid project).

      7. @Ross: Really? I thought the whole reason that ST3 did not include those ramps are because they’re not cheap. The 405-522 interchange would need a new bridge. 160th and Canyon Park both have no room. Perhaps 195th has a bit of room, but even there I think it’s pretty tight. Maybe not as expensive at 85th, but it’s still not going to be cheap.

      8. @David — It varies, obviously. But if you look at the budget for the last big state transportation project (https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/construction-planning/funding/connecting-washington) and then look at all the little projects, you can see that the big projects (SR 167/SR 509, SR 520, etc.) dominate the spending. As an example, consider the 167 to 405 HOT to HOV flyover ramp. This is obviously a big, tricky ramp. Apparently someone is going to build it for $115.9 million. There are other costs (planning and I assume some acquisition of property) so it all adds up to $200 million. The 85th street project is also really expensive, at 300 million. Not cheap, by any means, but still nothing compared to things like SR 520 or the SR 167/SR 509 projects, which cost ten times more. The point is, if we eliminate those big projects (and I think we can) then we have plenty of money with a reasonable gas tax to pay for plenty of little projects. A gas tax, of course, would be quite popular with the governor (and the current legislature) because it is a type of carbon tax. I’m not saying we would be able to do it soon (we just passed a big transportation package, and they will probably avoid the subject for a couple years) but I could see the state picking it up again in the 2020 session (assuming a lot of Democrats get elected).

  2. May the HOT lanes die already.

    HOV 2 or HOV 3 (or HOV 4?). The business community needs to stop expecting preferential treatment. When you compare the cost of the hot lanes to any professional’s billing rate, it becomes a no-brainer for any lawyer, engineer, architect, developer, etc headed to a business meeting. But when the price of that is coming out of an average working person’s household family budget, it is a luxury that is usually avoided.

    I am approaching this as somebody who has commuted by bus, car, & carpool, and who has used the HOT lanes for business purposes. Admittedly, it isn’t fair to your average worker who doesn’t have an expense account.

    I am sure that Maltby/Bothell has plenty of working-class commuters annoyed by the business vehicles and luxury cars that cruise past them by paying a toll that isn’t in their budget.

    1. I find the social equity argument specious. If poor people want/have to live where there are poor transit options, then they have to drive. If they can’t afford the HOT lanes, they can carpool and enjoy them for free. Or they can suck it up and slog through the GP lanes. Buses and transit aren’t suffering because there are SOVs paying tolls for using the HOT lanes. If the HOT lanes get too clogged, the price rises and finally turns into HOV3 only. Your argument that people should live close to where they work is great, but the cost of housing isn’t affordable.

      1. If the HOT lanes get too clogged, the price rises and finally turns into HOV3 only.

        No, the price caps at $10. So we don’t necessarily find the equilibrium.

      2. I also find the social equity argument specious. We don’t agitate to give out low income discounts for parking meters or gas taxes. All taxes are a burden on low income workers, that’s not unique to tolling. The best way to help low income commuters is to give them low cost alternatives for commuting – or better yet, build low income & middle class housing accessible to transit

        Martin, that’s an argument again price caps, not an argument against toll lanes.

      3. I don’t have a problem with tolling. I’m also not going to expend a ton of effort to fight for drivers, especially when it appears this bill will improve transit flow.

        Martin, that’s an argument again price caps, not an argument against toll lanes.

        We’re discussing the actual proposal. The actual status quo policy is germane, not an idealized form of tolling.

      4. To quote Martin (in what I found to be a very well written essay):

        Abolishing HOT lanes is clearly worse for drivers who place a high value on their time, whether affluent ones paying for convenience or poorer people who face severe penalties for being late.

        When do poor people face severe penalties for being late, you ask? There are plenty of examples, but one that has been mentioned here before is day care. Show up just a few minutes late picking up your kid and you owe them more than the cost of all those tolls. Another example is someone who has to run an errand from work, and would be in trouble if they get back late. Usually traffic is fine in the middle of the day, but an accident or unusual slowdown, and a driver (who assumed that they would be back in plenty of time) is going to pay the toll.

        I’m not arguing one way or another on this change, but absent any study, I don’t think we can make assumptions about who is using those lanes.

    2. +1 to that. Why should we give rich people even more opportunities to buy their way out of problems the rest of us remain stuck dealing with?

  3. That “HOV3” requirement is just a fig-leaf for an uncontrolled flood of SOV’s. Unless the roadway is patrolled with excellent cameras which can distinguish between humans and blow-up dolls, this will be the end of 405 BRT.

      1. If you remove tolls you have no source of revenue to pay for enforcement.

        The lanes would clog up for violators unless WSDOT passes through another gas tax increase to pay WSP.

      2. There are many HOV lanes in the region that have no tolls to fund enforcement. Do we believe that I-405 enforcement is substantially better?

        Shouldn’t fines cover most of the cost?

      3. How many freebie drivers actually have dolls? Or is this more of a theoretical problem than an actual problem?

      4. Currently, on the 405 HOT lanes your license plate is photographed and a bill mailed, unless you have a special Good To Go transponder specifically set to “carpool mode.” People without that equipment will avoid the HOT lanes.

        If the lanes revert to HOV, then State Patrol visual observation and enforcement is the only preventative to false HOV use.

      5. @Chad — Right. You need one of these to ride in the carpool lane:
        https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2015/11/03/flexpass91.png. Then you flip it to HOV when you have three or more people in the car. But how does enforcement work? In other words, what is stopping me from buying one of those things, and just keeping it in HOV mode? Isn’t enforcement the same way (a cop sees that I’m not paying the toll, then visually checks to see if there are three or more in the car)? It seems like the law as it exists now is simply encouraging a more savvy form of criminal. I would also assume that the ones that cheat regularly are the types that would know about this, and take advantage of it.

  4. “On Dec. 10th Sen. Guy Palumbo (D – Maltby/Bothell) prefiled a bill to end the High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on I-405.”

    The freeway widening was predicated on the toll lanes and their revenue. Some people would also like to end tolls on the 99 tunnel which is about to open. “Build it and we promise to pay for it. Actually, no, we won’t pay for it after all. We want to eat our cake and have it too.”

  5. Terrible idea and I’ll be glad to watch it quietly die in committee. Congestion pricing is a good thing. The project to add HOT lanes from Bellevue to Renton is about to kick off, bizarre time to try to kick the funding stool out from underneath the corridor.

  6. Reserve one lane for transit and one for HOVs. Let the car drivers wrangle over HOV2, HOV3, whatever. Sure, people will say the buses are allowed to go too fast. But that’s the point of BRT. Buses should be able to have a consistently free-and-clear path.

    Allowing any HOVs into a transit lane is what degrades the lane into being almost as bad as a general-purpose lane. Make it transit-only, and the cheaters are obvious.

    Also, I think Sound Transit is going to be charged some chunk of the cost for a lane whether it be transit or HOT. If Sound Transit has to pony up, Sound Transit should get the lane to itself.

    1. Treating the inner lane as a “BAT” lane is a solid idea, where HOV drivers can only access the lane when needing to enter/exit one of the left-hand HOV ramps. But that would also require a 2nd HOV lane, so we can still encourage/support carpools … which means we need a 4 lane freeway, which means we need money to both widen* 405 and install more HOV ramps, which probably means we need tolls.

      *Bus on shoulder can work, too, but most of Renton-Bellevue doesn’t have a shoulder and needs a full widening to improve bus service.

    2. As someone who commutes across the 520 bridge nearly every day now, I think the claim that HOVs in transit lanes make it “almost as bad as a general-purpose lane” is borderline insane. The 520 HOV lane easily saves me 20 minutes a day heading home (eastbound isn’t as bad for whatever reason), and it would probably be 10-15 minutes more if it extended all the way to I-5.

      1. Yeah, the HOV-3 lanes on 520 move very well. Of course bus lanes would be better, but I think a higher priority should be to have more HOV-3 lanes. HOV-3 lanes on I-5, for example, would make a world of difference.

  7. 1. Clean slate. All lanes, all traffic. Give it a year or two so voters and their legislators can talk about it.

    2. While ST prepares: 70mph jersey-barriered bus-only lane at center roadway. ramps to present express stations. ORCA only, fares steep income adjusted sliding scale. Other lanes, see second sentence above.

    Pike Place MARKET mops its floor every night, doesn’t it? Think Alexander Hamilton, Adam Smith, and Andrew Carnegie would each have endowed a transit center.

    Mark

  8. I’m one of Palumbo’s constituents and I think this is a bad idea. Admittedly, I usually bike to work rather than take 405, but when I do drive, I sometimes take advantage of the toll lanes to save time.

    If this goes through, the general purpose lanes will become more congested. And the same people complaining about the tolls will start complaining about HOV-3 and before you know it, that will end too.

    I originally wanted the new lanes to be transit-only (or HOV-3 if that would guarantee no slowdowns to transit), so in some ways this would just be a return to that idea. But I fear that surrendering to the naysayers on this point would just invite further bad changes in the future.

    If transit was actually competitive with driving in the general-purpose lanes, I’d feel differently. But once you including walking to stops and transferring, buses don’t get me to work reliably much faster than 10 MPH (when I have tried to take the bus to work along the corridor, a 13-mile journey has typically taken 80-90 minutes door-to-door).

    1. Let’s discuss this one, Erik. Which routes. at what time? Most important- exactly where do you lose the most time? I’m self-employed and like to read, so slow bus ride isn’t fatal. And if a half hour or so is over a cup of coffee waiting for a connection, still worthwhile.

      Also, with good hand-hold, a smooth driver, and a fast non-stop bus, standing load no problem. What I can’t stand is forcible waste of life. Including having to drive my car in a very slow death march- my car doesn’t have a depreciation monitor, but my bank account does.

      If I can’t do the trip on transit, I’ll spend more than an hour and half on my “Freeway-Free” map. Since I got expelled from Ballard, I’ve been spending five years finding different ways to get north of the Nisqually. So sometimes it’s roads I can actually drive. Other times, it’s good coffee, nice staff, and wi-fi ’til traffic clears.

      There is one way you can really help fix the situation: Can you give your reps detailed examples of what existing things could be improved, and what needs adding? Leaving Ballard wasn’t my idea. Lucky I knew Olympia. In 2014, best thing about it was being able, literally, to get door to door to anyplace in Seattle by transit. Intercity Transit is a first rate busline.

      My average ride: Olympia to Tacoma, one hour. Half hour coffee. Streetcar to Tacoma Dome for Sounder, or 574 to Sea-Tac and LINK downtown. Another hour. Could’ve been faster, but easy, comfortable trip. By 2016, fellow refugees trying to keep their jobs in Seattle sent me rogue.

      But still trying to merit “Recon.” Back roads to Tacoma Dome. Drive to Southworth, ferry to Rapid Ride downtown from Fauntleroy. But from these last years’ changes, I think that on paper or de facto, Olympia will be ST in five years. Because so many former Ballardites still need their same commute, and the flow isn’t slacking.

      Even got a Do It Now on the boards. Send ST 574 northbound to the Airport, only stops Olympia Transit Center, Capitol dome, Tacoma Dome, and Sea-Tac Station. LINK misses messes at I-5 and Spokane. Hour headway now, half hour in two years. Legislators get sliding scale. The more we need them, the lower their fare. Since Western State’s full, got nothing to fear.

      So what I’m saying is that your transit’s something of yours. Remind your reps of that and Good luck.

      Mark Dublin

      1. Bothell (about a mile from the downtown Bothell P&R and 1.5 miles from UWB) to Redmond (near 520/51st, but with a walk required to finish the trip). I guess it’s more like 15 miles by the fastest car trip (11.3 miles by bicycle). Most of the trip (if you drive) is 405/520 and pretty quick on a bus. However, the last mile problem on both ends, plus the transfers and waiting time needed (no matter which combination of routes taken), add tons of time.

        I was an advocate for the branched 405 BRT option that would have included a route touching downtown Bothell, which along with East Link could have made the trip a lot more reliable someday. I’m not sure it will make much difference, but we’ll see.

    2. It is actually not at all difficult to conjure up a trip that is 25 minutes by car, 1 hour 20 minutes bus. For example, if I look the map and choose a random point in Bellevue as the origin, and a random point around Capital Hill, SLU, or Belltown as the destination, the total time, door to door, probably looks something like this.

      10 minutes (walk from home to bus stop)
      + 10 minutes (wait for KC Metro feeder bus)
      + 10 minutes (time it would take feeder bus to drive directly to where you get off, with no stops)
      + 5 minutes (dwell times at bus stop for feeder bus)
      + 10 minutes (wait for ST express bus)
      + 20 minutes (time it would take express bus to drive directly to where you get off, with no stops)
      + 5 minutes (dwell times at bus stops for ST express bus, including the stop where you’re getting on)
      + 10 minutes (walk from bus stop to final destination)
      = 80 minutes (1 hr 20 minutes), total door-to-door travel time

      It is shocking that the total gets that big, with only 30 out of the 80 minutes consisting of actual driving, which each individual segment looks entirely reasonable. Which begs the question of how to make it faster, into the realm of what’s competitive with driving. There’s no one magic bullet, but a bunch of small improvements definitely do add up. Better bus frequency helps, as does off-board fare payment to reduce dwell times. As does bus lanes to help insulate it from traffic. But, for those whose origin/destination points aren’t right on the bus lane, the use of a bike or scooter for first/last mile transport actually makes a bigger difference than any of the above.

      1. Right, and if you take Link from Westlake to UW Station (6 minutes), transfer to the 65 to U Village (2 minutes), and transfer to the 75 to Magnuson Park (15 minutes), that’s 23 minutes riding time, Plus three minutes to get out of the station to the bus stop, so 26 minutes. But then you also have to wait for transfers. In a worst-case scenario if you just miss the 65 you’ll have to wait 10-15 minutes, and if you just miss the 75 too you’ll have to wait 15 more minutes, So that’s a 53-minute trip, of which 30 minutes was waiting for transfers.

  9. If the complaint is “rich people pay tolls, while not rich people sit in traffic,” doesn’t that make tolls a progressive source of revenue?

    Anecdotally, when I worked in Bellevue, my lower paid / under 30 coworkers would avoid SR520 like the plague, while senior managers commuted every day and just absorbed the $12/day as a cost of living. Those anecdotes always struck me as an equitable way to raise money, kinda like a luxury tax.

    1. Those with money get to move faster and those without, or those with less, get to sit in traffic. It’s typical for the Puget Sound to sound like they are for the disadvantaged, but then slap on fees for speedier travel so only those who can afford it gets to use it.

      Glad to see these getting a lot of pushback. Hope this bill passes.

      1. How will new lanes get financed?
        Raise the gas tax again?

        The legislature already raised them a few years ago without a public vote.

  10. I really want to see a legislator push for a change in the HOV laws that would make it a requirement that you must have two (or three) driver-aged occupants in order to use the HOV. A parent with a child does NOT reduce congestion (or pollution). If two people could and would be driving on the road, and one car gets eliminated, THAT is reduced congestion.

    And Uber and ride sharing should not qualify for HOVs unless there are two (or three) PASSENGERS in the car. Having an Uber driver plus one passer is NOT reducing congestion.

    In reality, I think a win would be if they actually enforce the HOV laws, not just once a year. An onramp I get on daily, gets backed-up daily, and I’d be willing to bet that 65% – 70% of those in the HOV have only ONE occupant.

    1. The State Patrol has already said that a driver age requirement is operationally unenforceable.

      They have noted that just counting heads is all the time they have to make a decision whether to pull someone over.

  11. Martin, how about we let my JerseyBarrierBullets ™ (regular buses!) move all the long-distance passengers. ORCA monthly pass only, steep sliding scale by income. Sound Transit’s work. Call it LINK NOW, A PREVIEW!

    Between Jersey barrier and right shoulder- that’ll be for the Legislature, Metro, and CT. But can’t think of a better way to clear every lane on I-405 to where every possible lane arrangement will keep moving at freeway design speed.

    Step in the right direction?

    Mark

  12. I’m ambivalent about this proposal. I think this is an improvement, but it is also politically risky. Not only for this corridor, but for others as well. HOT lanes are a political compromise, and may be the only way to achieve meaningful improvements in some areas.

    While it is an interesting proposal, I don’t think it should be a priority for this legislature. I can think of a couple ideas (off the top of my head) that would be far more important:

    1) Change HOV 3 to HOV 2 when it doesn’t meet the threshold for HOV lanes. I think there is a federal standard (something like over 45 MPH 90% of the time). I could also see the option of changing HOV 2 to HOT lanes (like the ones Palumbo wants to get rid of).

    2) Automatic enforcement of BAT and Transit lane violations. This came close last time.

    1. Palumbo has been supportive of transit and blasted Seattle for not upzoning enough to absorb the regional growth in walkable neighborhoods so it doesn’t sprawl out to Maltby, and there may be some merit to this idea. But it runs the risk of being seized on by those who want to dismantle all tolls, because drivers don’t want to pay tolls.

      1. Yeah. Sorry, I got the numbers confused (or the order, or something). I definitely meant that we should should change HOV 2 to HOV 3, not the other way around (doh!).

  13. OK, I’ll take another swing at it: “On the other hand, this bill is a laudable attempt at addressing social-justice concerns about tolling…”

    EVERY good that has a price raises social justice concerns. If you believe markets (regulated as need be) are good and/or necessary for managing goods, and are ALSO concerned about social justice, the answer is income / wealth redistribution (and I will march with you on that front). Why is road access pricing any different from pricing of food or any other goods? Trying to solve inequality by frustrating the markets for individual goods is pushing on a string, and will simply result in poor policy.

    The downside of an attempt to maintain free-to-use commons is not only inefficiency, but also unintended realization of inequality in other markets/. It’s no accident that the affluent are pricing the non-affluent out of housing in Seattle and Bellevue – among other advantages, that’s how the affluent can buy down the time and pain of commuting. Tolling won’t totally solve that problem, of course, but at least it pushes in the right direction.

  14. I wouldn’t apply the term “lackadaisical” to Washington State Patrol. The key time for cheaters is on the most congested roadways with the least available safe space to pull people over and ticket them. WSP does it where they can and where funding is available. Focused enforcement periods can help. (See Times article noted below.) The cost of such enforcement is very high and the tolls are helping somewhat in defraying the cost. Automated technologies for vehicle occupancy have been worked on for years and are still very inaccurate.

    State Patrol crackdown on HOV violators snares more than 1,700 drivers in Puget Sound area 9/20/18

    1. So facial recognition software that can recognize a given terrorist who has grown a new beard can’t tell the difference between a human and a blow-up doll?

      Right…..

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