The Washington State Transportation Commission plans to adopt a new rate structure for tolling express lanes being constructed on Interstate 405 between Bellevue and Lynwood, but interstate commuters spoke out against the system Tuesday night, many saying it won’t work and will force them onto general purpose lanes.
A two-lane express toll lane system both ways from Northeast Sixth Street in Bellevue to State Route 522 is expected to add capacity, as is a one-lane system both ways between SR-522 and I-5 in Lynwood. But in order to cover operation costs, the state transportation department reports a two-occupancy carpooling system drivers are now used to won’t work.
Commuters made public comments at a meeting with the WSTC Tuesday night at Bellevue City Hall, many objecting to only allowing vehicles with three or more occupants to drive the express lanes for free during peak hours. One man said he and his wife have a hard enough time planning their commute together, and they won’t be able to find another passenger to allow them to use the express lanes. He estimated it could cost him more than $500 annually to do so under the proposed rates. Vehicles with two or more occupants can use the lanes for free, but not during peak hours: 5-9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. Motorcycles, transit vehicles and vanpools will also be exempt.
Another speaker in opposition to the express lanes system questioned Washington State Patrol’s ability to enforce the new rules, as patrol officers will be relied on to make sure drivers are not lying about the number of occupants. They said there are already plenty of violators on I-405 and nearly no law enforcement presence. Emphasis patrols are expected to begin on the interstate once the express lanes open, but it is unclear for how long. Cameras also will be mounted to capture license plate numbers, the commission assuring audience members Tuesday night those cameras will not aim into their vehicles.
Paying the tolls will be cheaper for those using Good To Go! – a pre-paid pass drivers mount in their vehicles. Those choosing to pay by mail face a $2 increment charge. Drivers can also register their license plate for photo identification (Pay By Plate). For a vehicle to qualify for free carpooling, drivers will be required to use the new Flex Pass, a transponder that lets the driver change the setting to HOV-mode to avoid being charged. This would be used in conjunction with the Good to Go! pass.
The recommended average toll for the express lanes will be between 75 cents and $4 at the start of the tolling system. More congested days would fall between $4 and $10, the latter being the maximum and expected only 10 percent of travel days. Seventy-seven percent of trips are expected to be below $1, according to the WSDOT.
WSDOT reports I-405 experiences up to eight hours of congestion daily, amounting to one of the worst traffic situations in the state. HOV lanes already on the interstate fail to operate at 45 mph as required by state and federal guidelines 90 percent of the time. Another commuter accused the transportation department of trying to bump two-person carpools off the express lanes to meet the 45 mph mandate so as not to lose federal funding.
The Bellevue to Renton portion of the project remains unfunded, but could gain capital support depending on the outcome of efforts to pass a state transportation package this legislative session. Of the roughly $1.17 billion needed to complete this phase, which includes several other projects like a State Route 167 connector and Northeast Sixth Street bridge, an executive advisory group recommends using $215 million from toll revenues.
The commission plans to adopt final recommendations for its I-405 rate-setting policies on March 18.