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Home Travel Seattle-area express tolls soon to go as high as $15

Seattle-area express tolls soon to go as high as $15

by Staff

Drivers on I-405 and Highway 167 will pay as much as $15 to travel the express toll lanes starting March 1, after state transportation commissioners voted Monday to boost the maximum rate.

Currently, tolls top out at $10 for I-405 between Bothell and Bellevue, or $9 between Auburn and Renton on 167.

In addition, the minimum rate will rise to $1, and tolls will be charged from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m., instead of the lanes becoming free by 7 p.m.

Carpools of three or more people can travel free on I-405, while two or more ride free on Highway 167, at peak times. Weekend tolls will be charged on Highway 167 but not on I-405.

Higher rates are meant to unclog the express toll lanes by deterring some users, and cover a fraction of the costs to widen freeways.

The $9 or $10 rates take effect only when traffic becomes clogged, which is happening again frequently post-pandemic. An algorithm raises the tolls as slowdowns worsen, with the average around $4, staff said. Even at $10, the lanes can often fail to flow at the state’s target of 45 mph.

Between 4% and 8% of drivers currently pay the max rates, commission staff said.

Impact on drivers

Commissioner Roy Jennings, of Clark County, described the figure as “not really true” for predicting the full impact this spring. The algorithm needs to begin ramping up the prices at five-minute intervals, affecting thousands of drivers, long before tolls reach the maximum. “There’s an increment of people at $9, $10, $11, $12 that are going to be paying,” Jennings said. He cast the lone “nay” vote.

The state Transportation Commission approved the changes by a 5-to-1 vote, despite public testimony that toll hikes are unaffordable for many drivers.

Ricardo Garmendia, a school-district manager living in Renton, said the changes increase pressure on families who moved south because they can’t afford the Eastside.

“People are going to be moving to the general lanes, and it’s going to increase the congestion for all the people using them, when they don’t pay the $12, or $15 or $20, or whatever you have in mind,” Garmendia testified.

Before casting her “yes” vote, Commission Chair Debbie Young, of San Juan County, pointed out that I-405 tolls haven’t risen since they began in 2015, so it’s reasonable that toll rates rise like virtually everything else people buy.

“The lane has to work,” agreed Commissioner Nicole Grant, of King County. “There’s nothing sadder than being in the HOT [high occupancy or toll] lane, or HOV lane, being in a carpool, or a bus, or because you paid a toll at the max, and the vehicles aren’t moving because the lane is congested.”

Trips are getting longer. As of October 2023, travel time deteriorated three to nine minutes in the free general-purpose lanes, and by one to three minutes in toll lanes, compared to a year earlier.

Northbound I-405 beat the state goal of flowing 45 mph in the toll lanes 90% of the time during peak hours, but the southbound lanes succeeded only 82% or so of morning commute hours. Highway 167 express toll lanes did worse, sustaining 45 mph only 72% of peak times northbound and 61% southbound, a commission chart said.

The worst sections were those providing only one tolled lane, not two.

WSDOT contractors have begun widening an I-5 bottleneck in Bothell, by adding a second toll lane each direction over the Sammamish River, to open in 2028 for a bid price of $834 million. Down south, I-405 is being expanded to result in two tolled lanes each way, two general lanes, and a few new exit-only lanes — a $704 million construction job to be done by mid-2025.

Following the money

State law combines I-405 and Highway 167 into a single 50-mile corridor for budgeting. The Washington State Department of Transportation collected $25.8 million for the fiscal year ending mid-2023, and expects $28.7 million this year. (About one-third of the 2023 revenue went to pay the cost of collection.)

Monday’s decision could boost revenue roughly one-fourth — between $4.8 million and $8.3 million between March 1 and mid-2025, the commission forecast.

The tolls affect how the state tackles inflation, such as the $275 million increase on recently signed contracts for the corridor.

Statewide, the Legislature is trying to solve a $5 billion gap for transportation, said Reema Griffith, the commission’s executive director.

“The ability to deliver many projects is at risk right now,” she said. Higher toll income would solve a small share of the shortfall, she said.

Future 405 and 167 projects may be delayed until toll income can accumulate, said WSDOT tolls director Ed Barry. That includes new money when the Renton-Bellevue toll lanes open by mid-2025.

Gas taxes are the main source, Griffith said. To shift money from the general fund would mean less for education, health care and public safety, “so there’s a constant balancing act” for lawmakers, she said.

During public outreach, 4,200 email comments opposed the changes and 300 supported it. Bellevue supports the plan, while Auburn agreed with the later 8 p.m. collection time, but not the max rate. The Bellevue Chamber of Commerce and King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn opposed the plan.

The series of widenings on 405 and 167, along with other megaprojects in an era of climate change, are meant to fulfill transportation master plans WSDOT devised with local cities and legislators in the early ’00s, to keep traffic capacity growing alongside the driver population. Toll lanes serve a dual purpose as transit routes — which aren’t appealing unless they flow 45 mph.

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