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New bill for toll lanes on I-405 quickly draws opposition

An artist rendition shows how signs would advise motorists about costs to use a proposed HOT lane on I-405. - Courtesy Photo
An artist rendition shows how signs would advise motorists about costs to use a proposed HOT lane on I-405.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

A bill to bring high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to Interstate 405 is back in front of the Legislature, and it's already drawn criticism from prominent Eastside individuals.

House Bill 1382, proposed by Reps. Judy Clibborn, Marcie Maxwell, Marko Liias, Deb Eddy, Ross Hunter, and Larry Springer last week would direct the Washington State Department of Transportation to build new HOT lanes (areas where solo drivers pay to use car pool lanes) from Bellevue to Lynnwood heading north, and conduct an extensive traffic and finance study for the southern portion from Bellevue to Puyallup.

"An express toll lanes network could provide benefits for movement of vehicles and people, as well as having the potential to generate revenue for other improvements in the Interstate 405 and state route number 167 corridor," the bill reads.

A similar bill failed last year as confusing language and unknowns about finances bogged down the dialog. The lingering question that remains unanswered in this bill is whether cars will need to have two or three occupants to traverse the HOT lanes freely. An expert committee validated the HOT lanes concept with the questions of funding the full $2 billion project and two-plus/three-plus lanes unsolved.

Just days after the HOT lanes concept was presented in the state house, opponents of the bill came forward with a counter argument.

Former state Sen. Jim Horn, Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman and former Bothell City Council Member Dick Paylor, representing the Eastside Transportation Association, urged the Bellevue City Council on Monday to support the I-405 Master Plan that was adopted in 2002. The plan calls for two new general purpose lanes, financed by $1 tolls for all drivers in all lanes that conclude once the whole of the expansion is financed.

ETA's presentation argued that WSDOT's HOT lanes would do nothing to alleviate congestion, as the average toll (nearly $8 for the average trip, according ETA's figures) would prove too costly for most drivers, leading to wide open HOT lanes and jammed general purpose lanes.

"I can't think of anything that will kill Bellevue at this critical time as the economy is starting to recover than for 405 to become more screwed up than it already is," Freeman said.

Horn suggested that funding from the Eastlink light-rail program could come available should a lawsuit, filed against Sound Transit and the state by Freeman, Horn and others, prevent light-rail tracks from being built across I-90. That would pay for increased bus service across I-90 and the bus-rapid transit element of the I-405 Master Plan, he said.

The council was intrigued by ETA's presentation, but still cautiously threw its support behind the bill, which is scheduled for a public hearing Feb. 2. HOT lanes remain a new concept, however, and the council wanted to see stronger language in the bill emphasizing performance of the lanes.

"I'm seeing a lot of monitoring and consultation and discussion, but I'm not really seeing a commitment that if it doesn't work we're going to go to a different program," said City Council Member John Chelminiak.

Aside from the two-plus/three-plus question, the other lingering issue remains financing. WSDOT's original $2 billion plan is at least $600 million short. ETA claims that the 405 Master Plan will fund all the improvements, while the HOT lanes proposal would leave approximately 39-56 percent of the work unfunded. The expert committee pointed to financing as an important key to the project's success.

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