The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) had a busy 2015.
Amid all its responsibilities, the agency established a new position of Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, with a surprising $89,712 per year salary. And don’t forget the Bertha debacle. The Highway 99 tunnel project is now more than two years behind schedule, with everyone holding their breath for the tunnel machine’s next catastrophic breakdown.
But, out of all the controversy and frustration, WSDOT’s new tolling system on Interstate 405 takes the top spot. The scheme is complete with $10-per-trip charges (“the new normal”), a “glitch” that resulted in some commuters being charged twice for the same trip, and a return of 30 cents out of every dollar in tolls to the public treasury—enough to frustrate even the most patient among us.
Needless to say, frustrations with WSDOT are high, and legislators have noticed. What do lawmakers have in store for WSDOT during the 2016 legislative session?
Republicans plan on addressing I-405 tolling scheme
GOP State Senate Ways & Means Chairman Andy Hill and state Representative Mark Harmsworth from the House Transportation Committee recently announced a bill to eliminate one of I-405’s vaunted toll lanes, and let the drivers (who already paid for it through gas taxes) use it as a general-purpose lane. Additionally, their bill would make other changes intended to reduce congestion on the busy roadway.
As the Seattle Times recently reported:
“Just as state tolling managers dig out from a billing mess, a pair of lawmakers near Interstate 405 now propose to slash that freeway’s new toll lanes…
“Harmsworth’s bill applies to new lanes between Bellevue and Bothell, where last week toll rates reached $10 in severe congestion. The lanes are funded by state gas taxes, so the entire driving public deserves access, Harmsworth argues. A citizen website, Stop405Tolls.org, says it has gathered 24,414 signatures…
“‘It’s incompetence, it’s inability to execute, inability to manage,’” Hill said in announcing plans to introduce a bill when the legislature convenes January 11.”
More specifically, the proposal would scale back WSDOT’s I-405 express lane tolling project. Currently, there are two toll lanes in each direction. The bill would leave in place one new tolling lane in each direction on I-405, but convert the other back to an HOV lane during the day, which would open to all traffic starting at 7 p.m.
“The tolling pieces are still there for one lane but it gives back a lane to everybody that was taken earlier in the year,” Harmsworth told KOMO News. “And after 7 p.m. it’s open to all traffic so everybody can use all the lanes without paying. So that’ll really help get things moving again.”
Commute time slows with I-405 tolling scheme
The proposal originally came after WSDOT released a less-than-flattering report on the I-405 tolling scheme’s progress. According to the report, drivers using the express toll lanes have seen the benefits—but at a cost. Drivers willing to pay an average of $2 to $3 a trip save 12 to 14 minutes off their trips.
The report, however, also acknowledged congestion has increased for commuters using the general-purpose lanes during the weekday evening commute between Bothell and Lynnwood. For those drivers, the commute takes five to ten minutes longer.
Rep. Harmsworth believes he can get bi-partisan support for his bill. For the sake of I-405 commuters, here’s hoping he’s right.