As part of its Eastside Corridor Tolling study of I-405 and SR 167, WashDOT will hold public meetings next week on Aug. 18, 19 and 20 in Auburn, Bellevue and Renton. Due to increased population and employment over recent decades, the north-south highway corridor of I-405 and SR 167 serving suburban cities south and east of Seattle already suffers major peak hour congestion which would worsen without intervention as growth continues. Up to two (electronic, variably-priced) express toll lanes in each direction are being contemplated for I-405 along with the addition of another lane in each direction to SR 167, each of those likely to be similarly managed.
These priced lanes on both roadways would be in addition to existing general purpose lanes, so drivers would have a choice.
In an ongoing four-year pilot project, one high occupancy and toll (HOT) lane is already operational in each direction on a nine-mile stretch of SR 167. (In some priced lanes, such as on SR 167 now, multiple-occupant vehicles travel at no charge. Transit vehicles always go free.) The southbound SR 167 HOT lane is to be extended, in a project set for completion in 2015. But the price tag for adding a new lane in each direction on SR 167 is hefty; between $1.5 to $2.2 billion, according to the draft recommendations of the SR 167 Valley Freeway Corridor Plan. And, a distinct but key project to extend all of SR 167 to I-5 and the Port of Tacoma from its current terminus will require rustling up another $2 billion. Right-of-way purchases for that are starting now, with $63.4 million approved earlier this year by the legislature. The purse for that project now holds $160 million from various sources including the state gas tax and federal funds. Suffice it so say the stretched-thin state gas tax, and the persistently diminished federal gas tax trust fund, aren’t going to come anywhere near paying for most of these and other major roads projects in our region.
It is understood that variable rate electronic tolling will be one essential component, though not the entire solution, for funding highway mega-projects in Central Puget Sound – including in the Eastside Corridor. Other potential funding tools include increased gas taxes, an increase in the vehicle excise tax, and – particularly, if the legislature were to permit it – a design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) lease agreement of 40 years between the state or an authorized corridor authority, with a private road construction and management consortium.
Express toll lanes and their close cousins, HOT lanes, provide crucial “congestion insurance” to drivers when they have to be on time and wade through peak hour traffic. The fast, managed lanes are also seen as a way to expand and ensure reliable express bus service, and cut air pollution from idling vehicles.
In this July 29, 2009 presentation to the study’s executive advisory group, WashDOT notes previous analyses bearing on the Eastside Corridor found tolled lanes operate better than non-tolled lanes; and growing traffic will by 2020 require toll exemptions only for three occupants or more in a vehicle, not just two (as at present on SR 167).
Come review current tolling options for the corridor, speak to project managers, voice your concerns and submit comments at the meetings next week. If you can’t attend, you can examine the plan here (see pp. 31-36 for different configurations) and e-mail your comments to ECTollingStudy@wsdot.wa.gov