The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) decision to set the toll rates for Interstate 405’s HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane was preceded by a mass exodus from attendees who felt their voices had fallen on deaf ears at Kirkland City Hall Wednesday.
Prior to the motion, which received no opposing vote, commuters and local residents lambasted the tolling plan during the public comment section as a “regressive and discriminatory” tax that would merely exacerbate the current traffic congestion.
The vote sets the toll minimum at 75 cents and the maximum at $10, albeit 90 percent of tolls will be less than $4, according to Tolling Division Assistant Secretary Craig Stone.
One of the rationales for the toll, according to Stone, is that I-405’s HOV lane is not meeting state and federal requirements for vehicles to be traveling at 45 miles per hour 90 percent of the time. Instead, Stone said, vehicles are driving at that speed only 60 percent of the time, despite adding nine transit centers, 5,000 new park and ride parking stalls and 1,700 vanpools since 2002. Toll rates will adjust depending on traffic in order to maintain the 45 miles per hour requirement.
WSTC also set exemptions for carpools with three or more people, vanpools, buses and motorcyclists. To use the express toll lanes without an additional fee, drivers must have a Good To Go! account and a Flex Pass. Carpools will also have to get a transponder to place in the vehicle.
The toll will affect the existing carpool lane on I-405 from State Route 522 to Interstate 5, along with two lanes between Northeast 6th Street in Bellevue and SR 522 in Bothell, a total of 17 miles.
Left out of the exemptions were two-person carpools during peak hours, which were defined as between 5-9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m.
The mass exodus of attendees occurred after WSTC Vice Chair Joe Tortorelli of Spokane County made the motion to pass the proposal following a prepared statement by WSTC Chairwoman Anne Haley of Walla Walla County. WSTC member Dan O’Neal attempted to add an amendment to the proposal that would allow the exemption for two-person carpools during peak hours if the lane was meeting the 45 miles per hour requirement, but the motion failed.
Haley said at the beginning of the meeting that it wasn’t a question of whether tolling would occur, but what the rates and policy would be, as the legislature had already decided the matter in 2011 when it authorized tolling on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood.
The toll rate on I-405 from Bellevue to Lynnwood is considered to be one step in an overall plan to toll the entire highway from where it begins, north in Lynwood, to where it connects with State Route 167 in Renton. SR 167 already has a tolled HOV lane.
I-405 is considered to have some of the worst traffic in the state. The toll, Stone claimed, would help relieve some of the congestion during its peak use.
Stone also defended the restricted exemption for two-person carpools, one of the most controversial aspects of the tolling proposal, saying it would not meet their financial objectives if they exempted during peak hours, and it would also prevent them from meeting federal standards. Critics responded that it will force more cars onto the road, as two-person carpoolers have no incentive to drive together if they cannot find a third passenger.
One such commuter accused the toll of being used “so the privileged can get where they’re going faster.”
Several people voiced their support for the proposal, however, including Chief Financial Officer King County Department of Transportation Bill Greene, who said the tolling will encourage more drivers and commuters to take vanpools and public transit. Sonny Putter, the former mayor for Newcastle, expressed similar sentiments, saying it would create a reliable trip choice for people. Another supporter of the tolling proposal was Community Transit Service Development Manager Carol Thompson, who called it an “essential step in the direction of keeping the region moving.”
The majority of commentators, however, were opposed for a variety of reasons. One major concern by Kenmore residents, as well as the city of Kenmore, is that tolling will cause spillover traffic into their streets as commuters look to avoid either paying the toll or the traffic congestion. Kenmore City Manager Rob Karlinsey, speaking on behalf of Mayor David Baker, requested that WSTC allocate some of the tolling revenue to cities such as Kenmore to help mitigate the impact. According to the WSTC’s website, by law, the toll revenue can only be used to pay for the cost of the I-405 express toll lanes maintenance and operations, as well as future I-405 corridor improvements.
Kenmore resident Carl Michelman, who spoke at the prior meeting in Kirkland Feb. 19, reiterated many of his previous statements from that meeting, claiming that WSTC’s comparisons of I-405 to East Coast highways with tolls are not appropriate because those cities don’t allow for spillover traffic. He added that Kenmore residents pay a $20 car tab fee as part of a transportation benefit district to improve their roads, but now those roads will be used by people who don’t live there and don’t pay the fee.
Kirkland residents who spoke said traffic is also bad in the city during peak hours for the same reasons.
“Kirkland can’t take more people on the side streets,” one woman said.
One man said the traffic problem wouldn’t have existed if a light rail line had been built along the I-405 corridor, which he said was proposed during in the 1970s.
“If you had done that during the 70s you wouldn’t be having this discussion today,” he said.
As for the carpool restriction, critics stated that SR 167’s HOV lane includes an exemption for two-person carpools and is still profitable.
Commission member O’Neal seemed to agree with much of the commenters’ pessimism, including the terrible traffic congestion in Kenmore, saying the tolling proposal will “make life more difficult.”