Shifting goalposts for I-405 tolling

Shifting goalposts for I-405 tolling
A bill request by the Washington State Department of Transportation would change state law regarding performance metrics for the existing Interstate 405 tolling system and also for where the revenue is deposited. Photo: Ken Lund

corridor performance analysis study in 2018 found that the 15-mile Interstate 405 tolling segment was performing well financially but failing to maintain a 45-mile-per-hour average speed at least 90 percent of the time during peak hours. Now, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is asking the legislators to amend state law regarding those metrics and create a new, separate account for depositing the toll revenue.

While WSDOT argues that the new language will allow them to adjust performance metrics based on potential new standards from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), critics say the state agency is simply shifting the goalposts for the toll lane performance and potentially setting up the revenue to be used for other purposes.

“I think it sends the message that DOT is more interested in preserving the toll lanes and the money they get from drivers than they are in providing reliable trips to working families,” Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost said.

Sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44) and cosponsored by Ranking Member Sen. Curtis King (R-14) at the request of WSDOT, SB 5825 would remove existing language in state law stating WSDOT must use dynamic tolling to ensure those lanes have an average speed of 45 mph, 90 percent of the time. That language would be swapped out to say the agency must use tolling to ensure “the most efficient movement of traffic.”

There’s controversy as to whether the toll facility must meet the performance metrics to continue operating, or whether the facility only needs to generate enough revenue to cover the facility’s operating costs. Both were stated requirements under a state law that said after two years if they weren’t met, the system was to be dismantled. However, in 2017 Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson released a memo arguing the tolls could remain if they met just one goal of those goals.

In an email to Lens, WSDOT Toll Division Communications Manager Emily Glad wrote the proposed change under SB 5825 “removes a redundant mention of the 45-mph metric and clarifies that tolls must be set on the express toll lanes in order to promote the efficient movement of traffic.”

The other change to state law regarding an annual report by WSDOT to the legislature and Washington State Transportation Commission would allow them to use the 45-mph average speed “or an alternate metric determined by the department in conjunction with the federal highway administration.”

“Across the country, HOV and express toll lanes in urban areas are not achieving the 45 mph/90 percent of the time metric, and other metrics may be used in the future,” Glad wrote.

However, Frost says the changes would represent broken promise made to drivers in 2015, when the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes had tolls placed on them. “That was their agreement with the public: revenue and speed. And now by making it optional to meet that requirement, they’ve nullified the requirement.”

Another provision in the bill redirects toll revenue from I-405 and state Route 167 from the motor vehicle account into a new operating account in the state treasury. Glad said this is similar to what is already done with revenue generated by the state Route 520 tolls.

“Writing the bill this way allows legislators to determine which account should hold funds – MVA, Multi-Modal, or other accounts,” she wrote. “We anticipate any final version of the bill will provide more detail as to how the Legislature would like revenues to be handled. And of course, the Legislature must appropriate any toll revenues before they can be spent.”

State law imposes restrictions on how toll revenue is spent to within the tolling system. Glad also said that “toll revenue will remain in the corridor where they are collected. Drivers that use the facilities get to see it reinvested back…where they’re driving.”

However, Eastside Transportation Association Chair Bob Pishue told Lens that “you only want to put them (toll revenue) outside the motor vehicle account if you want to spend it on other things. Otherwise, why would you do that?”

He added that under the 18th Amendment to the state constitution, funds in the motor vehicle account can only be spent on certain transportation projects such as roads and highways. Moving the toll revenue outside that account could offer more flexibility on how it’s spent. “It may be, but not (until) 20 years from now,” Pishue said. “My guess is that they want to construct some improvements on I-405 that might not be highway purposes.”

While WSDOT is seeking authorization from the legislature to place tolls on the southern segment of I-405 from Bellevue Renton, Pishue says these proposed revisions in SB 5825 invite the question: “What kind of assurance do drivers have that the system they’re building is going to work?”

The companion bill to SB 5825 is HB 1899, sponsored by House Transportation Chair Jake Fey (D-27) and cosponsored by Vice Chair Sharon Wylie (D-49). No action is scheduled for either bill at this time.

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