As the central Puget Sound regional population grows in the coming decades, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) envisions a 40-mile long corridor of dynamic tolling lanes on the Eastside to manage the new traffic and provide reliable trips for commuters. HB 2071 would officially mark the completion of the first pilot project in that system on State Route 167 by designating it a permanent tolling facility. Although the bipartisan bill garnered no testimony during a February 21 public hearing of the House Transportation Committee, remarks by panel members indicated the level of scrutiny expected for any further tolling authorization proposals as part of WSDOT’s future plans.
Since implementation eight years ago, the SR 167 corridor had had increased daily traffic volumes, but the combined tolled HOV lanes, one southbound and one northbound, still meet a 45 mile per hour average speed standard more than 90 percent of time and provide faster trips compared to the general purpose lanes. The tolling system also generates modest surplus revenue after covering operating costs.
HB 2071’s chief sponsor is Chair Judy Clibborn (D-41). Cosponsors are State Reps. Dick Muri (R-28), Assistant Majority Whip Joan McBride (D-48), Vice Chair Jake Fey (D-27), Jay Rodne (R-5), Vice Chair Sharon Wylie (D-49), Mia Gregerson (D-33), Majority Floor Leader Gael Tarleton (D-36), and Jeff Morris (D-40).
Clibborn: Time Has Come To Make Toll System Official
Clibborn told panel members that “you don’t do this kind of policy forever in the back of a budget. Its time has come. It’s kind of the little engine that’s doing its part. It has a lot of capacity in it and unlike some other toll facilities, it’s not controversial. If you go down into that area, you’ll find that most of the people who are using it, a lot of them are businesses.”
Another tolling pilot project on the Eastside is the northern segment of Interstate 405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood. Although that corridor has seen improvements in travel times in the HOV lanes and most general purpose lanes since tolling first started in October 2015, the project has proved more contentious.
Managing Future Traffic Growth
The success of the SR 167 tolls could have implications for the state’s long-term regional transportation strategy as policy makers look for ways to manage future traffic. WSDOT anticipates another 100,000 residents along the SR 167 corridor by 2030. The Puget Sound Regional Council projects another 1.5 million in 2040, along with a 40 percent increase in regional road usage.
The state legislature authorized tolling SR 167’s high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes as a pilot project in 2005. The system started operating in May 2008 on a nine-mile stretch between Renton and Auburn. WSDOT recently opened a nine-mile extension of the toll lanes into Pierce County.
WSDOT Toll Division Communications Manager Specialist Emily Pace Glad told Lens that “each facility often has different goals. On 167, the goal was to make it was the first express toll lane facility in the state, to demonstrate that it could be a tool that can be used to provide faster, more predictable trip. Revenue generation wasn’t a primary goal; it was more of an added benefit.”
Providing Faster, Reliable Trips
The system is accomplishing its primary goal. In May 2008, there were 110,000 average daily trips in the corridor, according to data collected from the segment in Kent near the SR 516 interchange. In May 2016, that number had increased to 124,000. During the 2016 fiscal year, the HOV lanes combined achieved a 45 mile per hour average speed during peak hours, 93 percent of the time. The combined general purpose lanes met that average only 32 percent of the time. During that same time period, an average of 4,600 vehicles used the SR 167 toll lanes each weekday and saved an average of six minutes during peak commute times compared to the general purpose lanes.
Peak times are defined as between 5-9 a.m. on the northbound lane and between 3-7 p.m. on the southbound lane. The average toll paid during the 2016 fiscal year was $2.16.
Guarding Tolling Revenue Appropriation
The system has also remained financially self-sustaining since April 2011. In the 2016 fiscal year, the tolls generated $1.4 million in revenue and $834,000 in operating costs. The latest fiscal report between July-December 2016 showed the tolling system generated $1.1 million in toll revenue, with $721,000 in operating costs.
WSDOT anticipates tolls will bring in $4.6 million during the 2017-19 biennium. That money can only be appropriated for use along that corridor, and any bonding on that money would require legislative authorization.
However, concern over the potential use of that revenue was great enough to warrant a query to Transportation Committee staff by panel member State Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-20).
“If we did this, is there any new authority that somebody could do with this that we might not be able to undo if we changed our minds on this?” he asked. “If the money is currently going to operations, would this make it so we could bond on these revenues, and if so, we bond, then we couldn’t undo this? We would have to continue the tolls to pay off the bonds. Is that a possibility?”