Is gridlock here to stay?

Is gridlock here to stay?
SB 5825 authorizes bonding of toll revenue that critics say undermines congestion relief in those corridors. Photo: freepik.com

During this legislative session state lawmakers approved SB 5825 which makes the tolls on Interstate 405 and State Route 167 permanent. However, the legislation also authorized $1.5 billion in bonding on the toll revenue to pay for infrastructure work such as the Puget Sound Gateway, which would also be tolled.

While legislators who supported the bill argue the move will speed up critical projects, others view it as codifying Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Roger Millar’s view that traffic congestion is “unsolvable” within the eastside corridor.

“I think people who use (State Route) 167 who also likely use I-405 to get to work, to run their errands, should expect gridlock in the future,” Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost said. “We’re going to be busy paying interest on these bonds for 30 years. Some of us are going to be on Medicare by the time this is paid off.”

The bill authorizes WSDOT to extend tolling on I-405 from Bellevue down to Renton where it meets State Route 167. Since 2015, WSDOT has also imposed dynamic tolling on two high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-405’s 15-mile northern corridor from Bellevue to Lynwood. Although the corridor initially experienced improved travel times, the toll lanes have failed to meet a state goal of 45-mile-per-hour average speed 90 percent of the time. The general-purpose lanes have also experienced no improved travel times.

The provision in state law was altered by SB 5825 so that WSDOT is to “maintain the goal,” rather than ‘ensure” the speed metric is met. Another section of the bill allows WSDOT to use an “alternate metric determined by the department in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration (FHA).”

Washington Trucking Association President Sheri Call told Lens that while the Puget Sound Gateway project is “one of the most important capacity enhancing projects for the trucking industry in a very long time,” she added that the congestion on I-405 “has been horrible for our industry even with the addition of the hard-running shoulder. On that corridor, where we don’t have access to hot lanes, it has been a huge cost to our industry. I don’t see any motivation to provide any relief at all of anyone.”

A similar outlook is shared by Eastside Transportation Association President Bob Pishue. “What we’re seeing is people moving further and further out due to housing prices. We’re just going to see more demand on the road. We’re going to continue to see the demand for roads exceed the supply of roads.”

Pishue argues that the current makeup of I-405 does not accurately reflect its 2002 record of decision submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which describes “future consideration of expanded managed lanes operations on I-405, which could include managing up to two lanes in each direction.” Managed lanes are defined by the FHA as “as highway facilities or a set of lanes where operational strategies are proactively implemented and managed in response to changing conditions.”

“We’ve already seen roadblocks like this come up that weren’t part of the original plan,” he said. “This (tolling) wasn’t part of the original plan for I-405, so it’s really causing a monkey wrench. The I-405 corridor was supposed to be completed in 2020. At the rate we’re going, it won’t be completed in 2100. We’re really far behind, and things like this stifle progress.”

Pishue also questions the rationale for bonding toll revenue to speed up project timelines. “If we didn’t sell bonds, that project would have been pushed out a little bit, but then future projects would have come online sooner.”

One proposal suggested during the Senate floor debate over SB 5825 was to instead use motor vehicle sales tax to pay for transportation projects.

“Taking this approach where we’re borrowing money rather than paying as we go, we are crippling ourselves as far as finding funding for more meaningful projects,” Frost said. “Given that DOT now has what is effectively a policy of managing gridlock and managing congestion, rather than reducing congestion, bonding toll revenue aligns with their values.”

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