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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Express-lane tolls on two WA highways could soon rise to $12 or $15

By Mike Linblom Seattle Times

OLYMPIA — State transportation commissioners set the wheels in motion Tuesday to raise maximum tolls to either $12 or $15 by early 2024, in the busy I-405 and Highway 167 express toll lanes.

Drivers can pay to enter these lanes, along the left side of the freeway, to escape severe congestion in the free general-traffic lanes. But at the current top rates, the toll lanes have often been too clogged lately to flow at the Legislature’s mandate of 45 mph during 90% of peak hours. A higher rate would deter some drivers from entering, so the lanes stay quick for those who do, staff predict.

The Washington State Transportation Commission voted 6-0 to seek public comment and issue technical updates by December, hold a toll-rate vote in January, then charge drivers more in February or March.

Tolls are an emotional issue for thousands of Washingtonians, including more than 30,000 who signed a “No Tolls on 405” petition in 2016. The tolls remained, but in response to the political heat, the state added some lane space in Kirkland and Lynnwood and haven’t raised the rates since.

Current toll lane maximums are $10 between Lynnwood and Bellevue on I-405, or $9 between Auburn and Renton on Highway 167.

Carl See, the commission’s deputy director, cautioned Tuesday that a $12 top rate won’t do much about either congestion or a yawning budget gap as road construction costs soar. A $15 max would help, he said, but the Washington State Department of Transportation didn’t publish revenue estimates Tuesday, aiming to do so by December. The optimal rate for traffic flow appears someplace between a $15 and $18 max, said Karl Westby, 405/167 traffic operations lead for WSDOT.

That’s a key point — toll hikes are about raising money, not just tinkering with decongestion. By law, net toll income from 405/167 must be spent there.

Recent construction bids to widen the two highways were $275 million higher than estimated, WSDOT told the commission. That’s in addition to a $450 million budget shortfall in I-405/167 projects announced in 2022, which Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature are filling with federal infrastructure funds plus state budget shuffling. Toll roads also lost money when traffic ebbed during the pandemic, so WSDOT is playing catchup even though traffic jams are back. A full suite of 405/167 interchange and lane projects this decade, across a 50-mile corridor, totals around $4 billion.

Widening is underway between Renton and Bellevue, to result in two toll lanes and two free lanes each direction in 2025, where one free carpool lane and two general-traffic lanes congest now. Up north, work begins soon to widen a Bothell bottleneck where two tolled lanes each way shrink to one.

Tuesday’s vote moves WSDOT toward $12 or $15 as an interim rate for 2024, until the Renton-Bellevue segment is done. Then a semi-permanent overhaul of rates and rules would be enacted in 2025 that might include weekend tolls for solo drivers, more hours when two-person carpools are tolled, and maybe an $18 max. Commissioners intend to standardize rates and policies across an entire 50-mile area from Lynnwood to Puyallup.

A $12 option should be kept for now because it was suggested by Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said Commissioner James Restucci of Yakima County.

Reagan Dunn, a Metropolitan King County councilmember from southeast King County, denounced a potential $18 toll as a “war on commuters.”

“I don’t think tolling is working. You’re chasing one clientele — you’re chasing a wealthier clientele and you’re leaving everyone else behind,” Dunn said in an interview.

All freeway segments should have one free lane for buses and three-person carpools, and the rest free general-traffic lanes, he said.

Currently, Highway 167 toll lanes attain the 45 mph standard only half of peak hours, because so many drivers either pay $9 or cheat, in desperation to avoid the even slower free lanes.