A nerdy, but also visceral issue—tolling!—took center stage during this year's legislative session in Olympia and seemed to translate into one of the defining issues for governor Jay Inslee during this 2016 election season.
When the GOP controlled state senate fired Inslee’s transportation secretary Lynn Peterson in dramatic style in the middle of the session , Republican lawmakers cited WSDOT's I-405 tolling program as their main grievance, making the issue a political challenge for Inslee; WSDOT’s I-405 toll lanes feature HOT lanes that allow drivers to pay to use carpool lanes if they don’t meet the HOV rules (three passengers during rush hour.)
Freaked out about the apparent anti-tolling zeitgeist, the Democrats themselves—who are philosophically supposed to support pro-transit tolling policies like HOT lane tolling— advocated scaling back I-405 tolling too. Inslee did too.
I started out this post using the word “visceral” for a reason. Despite the noise, the latest data (such as measuring traffic speeds) shows that I-405 tolling has actually improved traffic conditions and commutes. What’s more: the surveys show that people are pleased with the program. (By the way, earlier data, available during last session's attack on Peterson, found similar results.)
A presentation on the I-405 tolling program put together by WSDOT this week documents the following:
Compared to last year, both during the morning and evening rush, traffic is moving faster in the general purpose lanes on I-405; specifically, traffic is moving four minutes faster between Bellevue and Bothell and two minutes faster between Bothell and Lynnwood in the AM and six minutes faster between Bellevue and Bothell in the PM. One outlier: traffic is three minutes slower between Bothell and Lynnwood in the evening; though, overall, the travel times in the general purpose lanes have improved with average speed going from 28 mph to 32 and 34 mph in the north and south bound lanes respectively.
(For what it’s worth—the point of having an HOV and HOT lane option, isn’t to make SOV driving easier, it’s supposed to give drivers an incentive to carpool or take transit. So, the slower time for single occupancy car commuters in further out suburbs from Bothell to Lynnwood isn’t necessarily an indictment of the program. But again—overall, traffic times in the general purpose lanes have actually improved with the tolling program. And, of course, those SOV drivers now have the option of commuting in the fast lane.)
As for the HOV option—the express tolling lanes are moving traffic at 45 mph, 91 percent of the time during peak hours—a seismic leap over the pre-express lane traffic flow times from when before the program kicked in.
Moreover, a majority of the toll lane users, 53 percent, are satisfied with their commute relative to the tolls they paid.
And speaking of paying: 82 percent of all toll trips during the peak hours cost $4 or less; 66 percent are just seventy-five cents.
I realize facts don't matter in the Trump-era, but there you have it.