Aligning with traffic performance and financial data from Washington state, national experts suggest that the new express lanes tolling on I-405 east of Seattle could well be headed for success over the long haul.
The political winds around the introduction of the express toll lanes on I-405 haven’t settled yet, as anyone tuned in to political discourse and social media can see.
But this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Seattle region tolling already encompasses several other highways and bridges, with more to come.
And the ongoing regional roll-out of highway tolling will be accompanied by a new and substantive congestion-busting push from 17 major regional employers, leading business organizations and former Governor Christine Gregoire.
That will include an emphasis on the private sector role and increased ride-sharing.
Reason Foundation Expert: What Tolling Success Looks Like
Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, and a member of the expert review panel for the I-405 tolling, said two major goals for successful express toll lanes are financial self-sustainability and meeting Federal Highway Administration performance standards.
The new I-405 tolling system so far has done both.
WSDOT data gathered in the first three months of I-405 tolling, from Sept. 27- Dec. 26, 2015, found the toll lanes in both directions met or exceeded a 45-mile-per-hour average 90 percent of the time, as required by the state and federal government.
The department plans to release its six-month traffic report sometime in April.
Revenue Flow Is Strong
Revenue from the I-405 system is also already exceeding operating costs, according to WSDOT Communications Specialist Emily Pace. State law requires it be self-sufficient within two years. For the first fiscal operating period of fourth quarter, 2015 WSDOT reported total I-405 tolling project revenues were double expenditures.
Revenue specifically from I-405 tolling during that period was $3.7 million. WSDOT originally projected only $1 million in revenues for the period.
The ‘Economic Worth’ Of Getting Where You Need To Be, In Time
The high revenue level represents the economic worth the region’s drivers paying the toll put on reliable trips. That’s according to Richard Mudge. He’s an economics and transportation finance expert with Washington, D.C.-based Compass Transportation and Technology Inc., and has headed the public sector investment unit at the Congressional Budget Office.
“Before this happened, we were losing more than that ($3.7 million) in terms of economic and social value,” Mudge said. Variable toll prices like this allow drivers who are willing to pay get to where they need to be, he added.
So far, improved driving times on I-405 haven’t come at a price for nearby highways like I-90 or I-5. Data gathered by WSDOT also shows that Kenmore, Kirkland, Bellevue and Redmond have also seen “no noticeable changes” to their local roads.
“If you have a price that can do that at certain times of day that has real value,” Mudge said.
Washington Roundtable President Steve Mullin said the region’s growing population necessitates the use of tolls to finance and maintain infrastructure.
There are two express toll lanes in each direction on I-405 for about 17 miles between Bellevue and Lynnwood. The entire 40-mile corridor could be tolled in the future but that will depend on continued performance data, and the disposition of state legislators.
With the recent approval of the state’s supplemental transportation budget, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and lawmakers authorized continued oversight and evaluation including average speeds.
During a House floor debate March 9 House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-41) said the data flow would ensure “future investments will make that corridor work properly for congestion.”
Drivers who use the general purpose lanes on I-405 are seeing some benefits but not as much, said Bob Pishue, director of the Coles Center for Transportation at the Washington Policy Center (WPC).
Bothell and Woodinville have seen spillover traffic, mainly around chokepoints between major roads such as state Route 522 and I-5.
WSDOT’S Pace said they plan to lengthen the interchanges between the regular and HOV lanes on I-405 in these areas
A Warning On Easing HOV-3 Free Usage Rule
The 2016 supplemental transportation budget also included recommendations that WSDOT eliminate I-405 tolls during evening nonpeak hours, weekends and holidays. The department made those recommended changes to the system starting March 18.
It also recommended WSDOT reconsider their three-person carpool restriction. Reason’s Poole warned that too many such exemptions can weaken congestion mitigation and fiscal sustainability.
Concerns About How Tolling Lanes Were Paid For
Some state policy experts believe the focus on I-405 tolling traffic impacts is misdirected. The main concern is how the tolled lanes were paid for, WPC’s Pishue said. Around 95 percent of the $338 million in construction costs came from state gas tax revenue.
Pishue argued I-405 HOT lanes should be paid for through toll revenue by drivers who actually use them. Right now, many drivers in the general purpose lanes feel their tax dollars meant to improve traffic congestion for them have instead primarily benefited those willing or able to pay the additional toll.
It’s a common complaint that Rep. Mark Harmsworth (R-44) said he’s heard from constituents. Harmsworth is the assistant ranking minority member on the House Transportation Committee.
While the toll revenue for I-405 is relatively strong, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge due to insufficient traffic has been struggling to earn enough in tolls to cover its construction bond debt.
This year’s supplemental transportation spending included $2.5 million from gas tax revenue to help cover some of the Narrows Bridge bond debt payments. This prevented a $.50 toll increase, but Pace said the state expects increases will be needed in the future. The new 520 bridge also uses toll money to pay back the bonds for construction.
State Route 167’s high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes first opened in 2008 but didn’t see enough traffic to make the system financially self-sustaining until 2011. However at the outset it was meant as a pilot program, not to mitigate existing traffic. SR 167 HOT lane usage has quadrupled since 2008.
As Central Puget Sound moves closer year-by-year to a comprehensive regional highway tolling system, other parts of the country have seen success from automated tolling projects.
The Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority in Texas operates three tolls roads. No other money is used to construct or operate the roads. A 2014 audit found that the system collected $23 million in toll revenue compared to the $15 million in capital and operating costs.
In the meantime, Global Telemtatics President John Niles believes much of the negativity around Seattle-region tolling will settle down once drivers become more accustomed to it.
“Public acceptance takes time,” he said.