Expert panel validates I-405 tolling study; questions over funding linger
By NAT LEVY
Bellevue Reporter Staff Writer
November 12, 2010 · Updated 2:38 PM
A panel of national transportation experts gave its blessing to a regional plan to connect Interstate 405 with State Route 167 and implement high-occupancy tolling (HOT) lanes to pay for the project and reduce congestion.
Their recommendation came with an important caveat: local elected officials need to find a way to bridge a funding gap in excess of $600 million, or one-third of the project cost.
In the third and final meeting between the expert panel and local officials, the panel said the ideas behind the Eastside Corridor Tolling Study are consistent with practices throughout the country. The group's full report is expected out in December.
The nearly $2 billion plan to fund HOT lanes from Lynnwood to Bellevue 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.
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 HOT lanes are needed to make up for the HOV system that has been overloaded by the excessive traffic through the corridor, the experts said.
Familiar issues of how to implement the project in phases, how to pay for the unfunded phases and whether or not HOT lanes should allow free access to cars with three occupants rather than two were focal points at the meeting.
The majority of local officials spoke against the idea of setting a requirement of a three-occupant car pool lane, a concept the experts recommended. The local representatives said the public has shown an unfavorable opinion of this, and it would be especially difficult if it had to be implemented before any of the improvements were finished.
"They all hate this three-person car pool," said Renton City Council Member Randy Corman. "They feel like they're losing something, something they already paid for."
The experts said this move didn't need to happen right away, but it was something to think about.
The experts broke the project into two phases. The first, which is fully funded, would add a single HOT lane to the north and south ends of I-405. As this is happening, local and state officials would continue to work on financing the rest of the project, including the addition of two HOT lanes near the Bellevue portion of I-405 and a smoother interchange between I-405 and SR-167.
The experts said this level of phasing remains an unknown as there is very little history of it. Ideally, the whole project would be built together, but given the financial realities, that's not a possibility.
The experts looked at many different means to finance the remainder of the projects, including several different types of bonds, toll revenue and even public-private partnership, a concept that has been prevalent in several similar projects nationwide.
"There's a big funding gap, said Janet Lee, one of the panel experts. "How that's going to be filled is the big question."
Toll revenue will finance a portion of the project, but not all of it. Additionally, toll revenues will be unstable when the HOT lanes first open and people decide if they want to pay to get through traffic quicker. The original Eastside Corridor Tolling Study said the average driver will pay between 50 and 75 cents a mile, or approximately $8 per trip.
Among the issues it presented, the expert review panel also referred to several timeline recommendations. They said a superior interchange between I-405 and SR-167 needs to be a higher priority in the overall plan, a statement that drew applause from Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke.
The project still faces the challenges of funding and phasing, and they're not going away, the experts said. The conversation is nearly a decade old at this point, and the experts urged local officials not to give up now.
"We are not suggesting as a team you go back or slow down your current momentum. Certainly do not slow down," said Chuck Fuhs, a Texas-based transportation consultant. "There's been a lot of work done, and what's happened thus far makes sense."firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-453-4290.