I-405 tolls: should they stay or should they go?

I-405 tolls: should they stay or should they go?
Two Senate bills take aim at the tolling system on Interstate 405, which has failed to meet minimum performance metrics specified in state law. Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

State lawmakers may decide this session if the dynamic tolling system on a 15-mile segment of Interstate 405’s high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes between Bellevue and Lynnwood should become permanent, abolished or be suspended until a better comparison can be made to traffic flow in its absence. Proposals to do all three have been introduced and received public hearings in the Senate Transportation Committee.

While the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) favors SB 5825 to alter state law regarding the performance metrics that the tolled lanes aren’t meeting, SB 5018 introduced by Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) and cosponsored by Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) would remove them altogether, converting one of them into a general purpose land while maintaining a three-occupant requirement for the remaining HOV lane. Fortunato has also sponsored SB 5856, cosponsored by Palumbo, which would suspend the tolls and the HOV lanes for 120 days starting in October. WSDOT would then collect relevant traffic data during those 120 days.

One of the arguments made by proponents is that the toll lanes aren’t meeting the 45 mile-per-hour average 90 percent of the time, one of the metrics included in state law and a standard set by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). The other requirement was that the toll facility generate enough revenue to cover operating costs; the system has received enough money for WSDOT to invest further in the corridor, including a new shoulder lane on a northbound segment. WSDOT has argued that it only needed to meet on of the requirements to keep the tolls, an opinion shared by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The tolls were implemented in October 2015 after the two HOV lanes built in part with gas tax revenue were added to the northern corridor. At the time, the Washington State Transportation Commission and WSDOT justified the tolls as a necessity to meet state and federal traffic performance requirements that, as of the latest report, are still not being met.

“They failed and you know they failed,” former chair of the Eastside Transportation Association Vic Bishop told committee members at a Feb. 28 public hearing.

However, WSDOT Toll Division Director Ed Barry opposed both bills, arguing that eliminating the tolls would cause enforcement challenges for the HOV lanes. He added that it would also “cause traffic in the general purpose lanes to get much, much worse,” saying the HOV lanes have been “performing well since they’ve been implemented.”

Arguing in favor of the 120-day toll suspension, Fortunato argued that “you need to open up all the lanes…before you can tell me whether that would actually be true. We can have some baseline information on how this stuff actually works. And if it comes back and it’s accurate, well then we have better information to make better decisions.”

One objection raised by Barry was that WSDOT couldn’t suspend the HOV lanes due to federal restrictions. However, Fortunato stated that New Jersey filed a request to have the HOV lanes on its turnpike suspended.

“If they can, we can certainly request a waiver for a very short study,” he said.

No further action is scheduled for SB 5018 and SB 5856. SB 5825 received a public hearing on Feb. 21, but no further action has been taken.

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