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“The Impact”: Dynamic Tolling vs. Adding Lanes, Debating the I-405 Tolls

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

This week on “The Impact”:

As Seattle city leaders consider congestion pricing on city streets, Eastside drivers are have been experiencing it for years on the I-405/SR 167 corridor.

The idea behind congestion tolling is to reduce the number of vehicles on a given road or lane by charging a fee to drivers.

There are different motivations for different congestion pricing schemes. Some are designed to reduce vehicle emissions and promote alternative modes of transportation. Others are used as a tool to combat congestion and keep at least one lane flowing at a decent rate of speed.

That was the idea behind the I-405 Express Toll Lane pilot project which began dynamic tolling  in 2015 and the High Occupancy Toll Lanes on Highway 167 which began tolling drivers in 2008. The price of the toll goes up as more vehicles enter the managed lanes and traffic flow slows down.

Opinions vary about whether that’s the right approach or even if it is working on some of the busiest roads in the state. WSDOT says data shows the managed toll lanes are moving more cars at faster, more reliable speeds than before they went in. The transportation agency also says surveys show public support for the ETL’s has steadily grown over time and a majority of respondents approve of them.

But there are plenty of skeptics who argue the toll lanes have made things worse and created a system where only affluent drivers can afford to travel in what used to be a carpool lane. There’s also a dispute over whether the I-405 express toll lanes have been operating illegally for failing to meet a minimum speed requirement of 45 mph 90% of the time during peak traffic hours.

The I-405 ETL’s and the 167 HOT lanes on Highway 167 are the state’s first foray into variable toll rate managed lanes. The concept has been controversial from the start, but whether you love them or hate them, it looks like the toll lanes are here to stay. Plans are in place to extend and expand the toll lanes. The Washington State Legislature approved plans that would make the dynamic tolling pilot project permanent and allow bonding against the tolls to finance transportation projects.

Near a choke point on I-405 in Bothell we heard mixed reactions from drivers.

 “I think they’re high. I think it’s a lot of money for a lot of people you know I don’t think it’s fair,” said Brent Battaglia. “It’s simply too high for the average person. I’m a working man here on the Eastside and I live here on the Eastside and those tolls are kind of generated for people with, I should say a lot more income than me the regular working man you know.”

“I think they’re helpful. I think they do help alleviate some of the traffic issues. I think it’s, it’s hard to monitor as much as it needs to be.  I still think there’s a lot of people that take advantage of it and a lot of people that whip in and out so I would like to see more police presence around there although you know when you weight that against maybe more important things, where is your money best spent?” said Debra Granvold. “I think since the tolls went through it’s, it’s helped. It’s helped a lot.”

We also met with one of the founders of  a popular revolt against the toll lanes on I-405 as well as an area mayor who supports the plan to keep them.

 “The purpose of the toll lanes was to manage congestion now they’ve taken off the requirement of performance by speed so the only requirement is that they make money,” said David Hablewitz, co-founder, Stop405Tolls. “To add lanes is the only way you’re really going to improve this. Just add capacity that’s what makes the difference.”

“I finally figured out if I can do that and I can get to where I need to go quicker, it was worth the couple of dollars that it was going to cost to be able to do that,” said John Chelminiak, Mayor of Bellevue.

We break down the price, the performance and the plan moving forward for the variable tolls in this week’s episode of “The Impact.”

Click here to watch “The Impact” – June 5, 2019



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