The 15-mile northern segment of Interstate 405 from Bellevue to Lynnwood has now had dynamic tolling in place on two lanes for over three years and, according to the latest update, is still struggling to meet a key traffic performance benchmark.
A bill recently pre-filed by a state senator to remove the tolling system is the latest in the ongoing debate over its existence and whether or not the Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) vision for dynamic tolling throughout the entire Interstate 405 corridor is ever realized.
Last week, Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) pre-filed SB 5018, which is similar to a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Dino Rossi (R-45) which Palumbo cosponsored and failed to clear the Senate Transportation Committee following a public hearing. The newly elected chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, Palumbo represents parts of King and Snohomish counties.
His district includes the city of Bothell which is located at a critical junction of I-405 and State Route 522. A year after tolling was implemented, peak-hour traffic on southbound I-405 express toll lanes around that area at State Route 522 and State Route 527 increased by 30 percent.
If passed by the legislature, the bill would remove the tolls on the two high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. However, the lanes would still be restricted to vehicles that have three or more passengers, though certain segments of the highway would only require two passengers.
Palumbo’s bill revisits a question that has been somewhat put on hold after a Joint Transportation Committee meeting in December of last year that examined a corridor performance analysis study by the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering.
The study concluded that while the tolling system was performing well financially, neither toll lanes were maintaining a 45-mile-per-hour average speed at least 90 percent of the time during the six-month timeframe (January to June 2017). Also, the general purpose lanes experienced “no significant change” in times. However, the study attributes this in part to “overall traffic volume growth,” along with the toll rate algorithm and restrictions on maximum toll rates.
According to WSDOT, weekday peak period traffic on I-405 through Kirkland has increased by 23 percent in the three years since the tolls opened.
While state law says the tolls should be removed if they fail to meet their standards, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote last year in a memo that the tolls could remain if they met just one goal.
Among the study’s recommendations was to increase the maximum toll rate from its current $10 and make the algorithm more responsive to changes in traffic volumes. The Washington State Transportation Commission has the authority to change minimum and maximum toll rates, but has not made any changes to them.
Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost said the bill “gets at the right idea in terms of removal of the failing tolls – everyone knows they should have been removed in September of last year as lawmakers promised. People are not happy with the toll lanes and want something to change.”
However, she suggested that the bill be amended to “restore the general purpose lanes that were taken away to construct the express toll lanes, which would help improve the public trust that was lost between taxpayers, the legislature and WSDOT.”
WSDOT officials argue that the system overall is achieving its goal, which is to provide drivers with a reliable commute time. According to the latest figures, 61,000 daily trips are taken on the toll lanes, and drivers who use them pay an average toll rate of $3.17 and save on average 11 minutes. WSDOT also reports that at peak hours, the express toll lanes in some places carry 20-30 percent more vehicles than the general purpose lanes.
It’s also improved transit times by up to 11 minutes on some bus routes, according to WSDOT. More than 7,7,000 people daily ride a bus that travels in the toll lanes.
The state agency also highlights how the surplus toll revenue is reinvested directly into the corridor. Of the $75 million in revenue generated since 2015, 67 percent of revenue has or will be used for corridor improvements. Among the projects already completed is a $11.5 million peak-use shoulder lane to ease congestion in that corridor segment.