WSDOT brings in national panel to examine tolling on I-405
By NAT LEVY
Bellevue Reporter Staff Writer
September 8, 2010 · Updated 2:59 PM
Having failed in its previous attempt to gain support from state legislators, the Washington State Department of Transportation brought a national panel of transportation experts to Bellevue on Tuesday to discuss and dissect the plan to build express tolling lanes on Interstate 405.
In the first of three meetings on the subject, the committee acknowledged the issues of financing and what kinds of drivers should be allowed a free ride on the project the state hopes will clear up the traffic problems on the only alternative to Interstate 5 in the area.
The nearly $2 billion plan didn't make it off the Senate floor for a vote earlier this year, partially as a result of confusion as to how it would be financed.
Some skeptics were concerned that the bill would double tax motorists, charging them once to build the lanes and again to drive on them. Others were upset that the project didn't follow the I-405 master plan, which called for the installation of toll-free lanes in both directions. Still others were unnerved by the prospect of such a large project being funded by bonds secured by the assumption of unknown tolling revenue.
The toll lanes are part of an overall vision to connect I-405 with State Route 167 and form an Eastside Corridor that flows seamlessly between Puyallup north to Lynnwood. The state has already installed toll lanes on SR-167 between Auburn and Renton.
The experts told local leaders that installing express toll lanes – which carpoolers can use for free while drivers without passengers have to pay – has been on the rise nationally. Still, the system remains new, with only 10 completed projects nationally, and long-term results remain unknown, the experts said.
In Washington, as well as other parts of the country, a new factor has entered into the express toll discussions, financing.
"I think what we see now in the trend is this influence of the financing and how we're seeing a crunch in terms of money," said Ginger Good of Texas A&M University's Texas Transportation Institute. "The evolution into the next generation shows some projects that are looking at the pricing element as a way to help finance the project. When you bring that into the picture, you have to look at policy a little differently if you want revenue to offset cost."
Once cost becomes a prominent part of planning several other questions factor prominently into the discussion, the experts said. To maximize revenue, is it superior to charge drivers with just one passengers, and only allow those with two or more passengers free passage? That's a question, the experts said, that has yet to be answered anywhere.
"Every single study that looks at the question 'can you generate revenue to pay for new capacity' boils down to if you're going to give space away to every two-person car," said Robert Poole, a private transportation consultant.
WSDOT is planning two more meetings with the expert panelists before they deliver a report in December analyzing the efficacy of the program with national precedent as a benchmark.Contact Bellevue Reporter Staff Writer Nat Levy at email@example.com or 425-453-4290.