Making I-405 tolls permanent

Making I-405 tolls permanent
SB 5825 would make the toll systems on I-405 and State Route 167 permanent, while extending I-405’s tolls south to Renton. Photo: freepik.com

The dynamic tolling system on a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 405 between Bellevue and Lynwood was opened in 2015 to improve mobility and offer reliable trips for commuters. While the corridor is struggling to absorb increasing demand as the region grows, SB 5825 sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44) would authorize extending the tolls all the way to Renton to State Route 167’s system, as well as authorizing tolls for the planned Puget Sound Gateway facility as part of the Connecting Washington transportation package.

The bill cleared the Senate Transportation Committee on April 9, but not before an amendment was added preserving performance metrics for I-405, which is managed by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

However, that and other amendments won’t be finalized until the bill clears that chamber and also survives the scrutiny of House lawmakers, who are also considering HB 2132 which would authorize bonds to be paid through toll revenue to help speed up financing for the $1.8 billion Puget Sound Gateway project.

“I think there needs to be something that they (WSDOT) need to be accountable for,” Ranking minority member Curtis King (R-14) said at the April 8 executive session. “We’re collecting all this money; I think it’s a reasonable way of approaching it.”

King’s amendment keeps a goal for the tolled high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-405 to maintain an average speed of 45 miles per hour 90 percent of the time during peak hours. That metric was originally used to justify authorizing the tolling system by Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) officials. However, three years later the lanes aren’t meeting the standard, while speeds have remained “unchanged” in the general-purpose lanes. There is ongoing debate over whether state law dictates the system should be dismantled.

At the same time, WSDOT and local government officials point to the increase in corridor traffic since the tolls opened, and initially the corridor was meeting the performance standards. A 2017 report offered recommendations to improve the lane speeds by increasing the maximum toll rate above $10 and creating separate tolling segments with different prices to reflect their respective congestion levels.

Since 2008, WSDOT has also operated a dynamic tolling system on State Route 167 from Renton through Auburn. The toll rates range from $.50 to $9. The latest report from last year found that “lanes continue to operate well, although performance has struggled recently” due to nearby road construction. Tolling was originally authorized through 2012 but has since been reauthorized.

Under SB 5825, the tolling systems on both State Route 167 and I-405 would be made permanent, giving WSDOT authority to impose tolls on the remaining section of the I-405 corridor from Bellevue to Renton.

In the original bill, revenue from both systems would have been deposited into a new account, but an amendment successfully adopted by the committee places the revenue into separate accounts. Another amendment directs I-405 and Puget Sound Gateway toll revenue to be deposited in toll accounts within the motor vehicle fund. The gateway project will complete the remaining sections of State Route 167 and State Route 509 in King County and are considered vital for improving freight mobility to and from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

Sen. Hans Zeiger(R-25) introduced an amendment rejected by the committee that would have incorporated provisions from HB 2132 stipulating that future toll revenue from the Puget Sound Gateway Project be used to pay back bonds issued to speed up its completion from 2031 to 2028.

“We’ve become aware of the urgency of that project,” Zeiger said. “We’ve got to make sure we are accelerating that to the extent that we can.”

However, Hobbs said that “we need to move this underlying bill forward. We’re not sure if the bonding bill can even pass.”

SB 5825 has been referred to the Rules Committee.

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