Washington I-405 express toll lanes challenged as failure

October 25, 2017

Keith Goble


An express toll lane pilot project on a stretch of Interstate 405 northeast of Seattle is being branded a failure by a group of state lawmakers.

The project converted high-occupancy vehicle lanes and a general-purpose lane into express toll lanes, or ETLs, in September 2015. The project along a 17-mile stretch of I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue was set up for a two-year test period.

The continuation of the pilot project is contingent on two benchmarks: The facility must be operationally profitable and the express toll lanes must maintain an average speed of 45 mph for 90 percent of the time during peak periods.

After two years, the lanes do pay for themselves. However, the average speed requirement is not being met. The average speed in the affected lanes are 45 mph or more about 82 percent of the time – about 8 percent shy of the required threshold.

In an effort to improve afternoon travel time for northbound drivers into Interstate 5 at Lynnwood, the state opened a 1.8-mile “hard running shoulder” in April.

The Washington State Department of Transportation is claiming uncertainty about whether the intent of the law was for both criteria to be met. The agency has asked the state Attorney General’s office for an opinion.

A group of Republican state lawmakers, led by Rep. Mark Harmsworth of Mill Creek, are not happy with WSDOT dragging their feet on the matter. The legislators have written a letter to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee asking him to intervene on the matter.

“It is now the end of the two-year cycle for the ETL pilot project, and the WSDOT has failed to meet their legal requirement to move traffic at least 45 mph 90 percent of the time,” Harmsworth wrote. “Therefore, we request the ETLs shut down as soon as practicably possible.”

The GOP group is requesting the governor take action to convert one of the I-405 ETLs to a regular high-occupancy vehicle lane and the other into a general-purpose lane until the 2018 legislative session convenes. At that time, the state Legislature would decide how to handle the situation.

The toll lanes have netted quite a profit for the state. The toll rates vary from 75 cents to $10 based on congestion.

WSDOT says doing away with the toll lanes would cost the state about $13 million to remove equipment, restripe lanes and re-educate drivers to the change.

One possible alternative mentioned is increasing the toll rate. The action is anticipated to free up some space in the lanes.

Gov. Inslee has said he would prefer the group of lawmakers help come up with a plan to make the lanes as effective as possible.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Washington, click here.