Key vote looms for modern tolls on the Eastside

At stake is a proposal for a dynamic tolling system on two lanes of the I-405 corridor. Both toll-paying express lane users and regular drivers would benefit. And the funding could provide needed money to complete Eastside projects.

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At stake is a proposal for a dynamic tolling system on two lanes of the I-405 corridor. Both toll-paying express lane users and regular drivers would benefit. And the funding could provide needed money to complete Eastside projects.

The best chance for the state legislature to advance simple good sense in transportation policy comes this week. On March 16 the Senate Transportation Committee will take up whether express toll lanes should be installed by 2014 on I-405 as a forthcoming project adds new capacity between Bellevue and Bothell.

What’s new, at issue, and important, is this: When the new improvements are finished that particular section of I-405 will generally be five lanes in each direction. Will two of those lanes in each direction be tolled as express lanes?

This could set a course for highways here to operate more efficiently, for drivers to make choices as to how they use their roads, and for dollars to be raised more fairly for transportation investments than through the continued wholesale reliance on the obsolete mechanism of ever-higher gas taxes. In the mix, add the benefits of expanded bus rapid transit services on roadways that would effectively do double duty for riders as well as drivers. Finally, we would be insisting on the best use of roads we already have so as to minimize  building more new pavement than we really need.

Here's how express toll lanes work when they operate in tandem with adjoining regular lanes: Tolls to enter the express lanes will constantly be adjusted through the course of the day. When traffic along the corridor gets heavier, the toll or price for using the express lane goes up. When traffic is light, the toll is low.

The toll level will always be set to attract from the regular lanes the volume of vehicles, but no more, than can flow in the express lanes at good speeds without clogging bumper-to-bumper back-ups. Users opting to pay the going rate for the express lanes will always enjoy good speeds. That’s how they get their money’s worth.

It’s all made possible by constant, automated traffic flow monitoring and the convenience of electronic toll collection systems. Finally, new technology can start delivering dramatic gains for smarter roadways.

The side benefit is to the users remaining in the regular lanes. At peak periods the express lanes where price both attracts and protects flow will routinely carry much more traffic than if it were just another jammed regular lane. Therefore the adjoining free lanes have less traffic to handle. They, too, should move faster than if the even heavier volumes weren’t being moved efficiently in the tolled lanes.

Those who pay benefit a lot and those who don’t pay still benefit some. Everyone is better off than in the system captive to how we do things today. If this seems too good to be true, examples from around the country are already delivering in practice what express toll lanes promise in theory.

So, how are we coming in getting to this better place? The bill to approve beginning the tolling approach in 2014 between Bellevue and Bothell passed the House two weeks ago. Its fate in the Senate in the committee chaired by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D–Camano Island) probably hangs on finding a Republican vote or two.

It’s ironic that express lane tolling in the Washington legislature should hang on its ability to attract Republicans. The concept of express toll lanes really caught national interest several years ago when free market economists gained a toehold in the Bush Administration's Department of Transportation. They recognized, as virtually everyone now does, that funding is scarce everywhere for transportation investments. Building your way out of congestion with expensive new free roads could never work in the thinking of a free market economist.

On a national level, this is not simply a Republican insight. In Washington, D.C, the respected Bipartisan Policy Center opined in 2009 on improving the performance of transportation systems across America. It saw this kind of tolling as valuable for addressing transportation’s economic, environmental, and energy impacts. Two Democrats, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and former Minnesota Rep. Martin Szabo, and two Republicans, former New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, and, from Seattle, former Sen. Slade Gorton chaired the report.

From economics, any diligent college economics student appreciates the power of a fluctuating market price to put supply and demand into equilibrium at the optimum level of output — translated here as traffic flow.

From physics, every driver knows from direct experience that there is a sweet spot level of freeway traffic. Even in heavy traffic, everyone moves along fine until traffic volume grows just past the sweet spot. Then just a few drivers tap the brakes for a little more following distance or experiences a little nervousness merging lanes. And in no time that flow constricts and everyone bunches up and slows to a crawl.

That’s the science for using up-and-down tolls to pace traffic, as I discovered with the how-to-pour-rice-through-a-funnel demonstration that surfaced in response to the $1,000 MacDonald Challenge Prize contest in 2006. The key is not letting traffic surge past the sweet spot to clog, just like pouring rice too fast into the funnel. The variable entry price on an express toll lane balances the level of vehicle demand against available capacity so that drivers always stay in the sweet spot.

Since economics and physics work together in an express toll lane configuration beside regular lanes, it’s no surprise that express toll lanes already in operation at several locations around the country are proving a big success.

The best current example is probably I-95 heading north out of Miami. A toll system very similar to the I-405 proposal began in late 2008. A peak hour trip in the seven-mile express lane costs an average $1.75-$2, but on one occasion has reached $6. The lane with tolls to control traffic and maintain speed that used to operate as an ordinary HOV lane at an average rush hour speed of 20 miles per hour now operates at 56 miles per hour. Off-peak the toll falls as low as 25 cents.

The striking fact on Miami’s I-95, however, is found in the adjoining free lanes. Their former rush hour average was 20 mph. Now they operate at 41 miles per hour. The drivers of just 25,000 vehicles a day — a tenth of the vehicles on this I-95 stretch — pay for the speed premium. But the system delivers for everyone, even those who don’t use the tolled lanes.

Washington has its own modest pilot project on State Highway 167. This is a more lightly traveled highway than I-95 north of Miami. But it is a highway segment that during rush hour still shows high levels of congestion. About 2,200 cars per day use the express lane,  especially when congestion backs up the rest of the highway.

Two years after the old HOV lane was converted to a tolled lane, WSDOT has found the number of cars in that lane at peak rush hour had increased by 12 percent and were moving at the speed limit. The typical speeds in the adjoining regular land had increased by 11 percent. Indeed the volume of the traffic in the adjoining regular lanes actually slightly increased. In short: a more useful, more efficient highway for everybody.

Even though the relatively short congestion peaks on State Highway 167 mean that its benefits fall mostly in congestion reduction and not in revenue, the ever-growing use of the lane will push the pilot project into the black (revenues more than covering toll operating costs) some point in 2011.

Customer surveys on the pilot program on State Highway 167, mirroring surveys of express toll lanes in Orange County, California, show that the users of the express lanes are hardly confined to Lexus drivers. People form all walks and stations of life choose to pay to use the express lanes regularly or on occasion — hourly service people like plumbers driving between jobs, delivery van drivers, and parents hustling to day-care pickups, ordinary people late for the dentist or a dinner date.

What a novel idea! Finally, people may make their own choices of their own individual balance between money spent and time spent.

Promising results characterize systems of mixed tolled and free lanes now operating in Florida, California, and elsewhere. They are helping drive plans for start-ups, extensions, and even entire networks in metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. along with other locations. Several metropolitan areas, not just the Settle/Eastside area, are planning express toll lane projects and even entire networks.

Then there is the prospect of tolls not just increasing the efficiency of the highway, but also helping to pay for transportation improvements. That’s where the specific circumstances of I-405 — a highly-travelled roadway with certain traffic growth in its future — have drawn out significant support for the express toll lane proposal.

Interstate 405 and its connecting offshoot State Highway 167 from Renton to Kent, Auburn, and south is a 40-mile long corridor. State legislation in 2003 and 2005 earmarked piecemeal funding for a several projects the corridor needs. Drivers have seen many improvements already completed, and construction will soon start as scheduled on lane additions expected to be completed in 2014 at a cost of about $330 million between Bellevue and Bothell.

But the funding expectations for other critical projects between Bellevue and Renton, and especially the notorious 405/167 interchange in Renton — one of the worst congestion bottlenecks in the state — suffered voter turndowns in Referendum 51 in 2001 and the so-called Roads + Transit package in 2007. There is today no money for the projects.

Many local officials along the corridor strongly believe that the express lane tolling approach eventually can be extended the length of I-405, perhaps providing 40 percent or more of the funding for the now-orphan projects. Details of that long-view approach still must be developed. But this is a partial plan for funding that is much more pragmatic than hoping that a future gas tax package from Olympia will bestow a behemoth bequest to wholly carry just one more big Central Puget Sound area highway need.

Officials on a corridor-long executive committee who support this year’s legislation include mayors or council members of Algona, Bellevue, Pacific, Kirkland, Newcastle, Kent, Auburn, Puyallup, Renton, and Tukwila as well as Roger Bush, chair of the Pierce County Council, Dave Gossett of the Snohomish County Council, and Reagan Dunn of the King County Council.

The Puget Sound Regional Council has joined that endorsement. That’s unsurprising since its recently adopted Transportation 2040 regional plan is premised on a broad adoption of tolling approaches to support any remotely achievable financial plan for 30 years of needed regional transportation investments. Key businesses dependent on the corridor, notably Microsoft and Boeing, also support the proposal. So does the Downtown Bellevue Association.

Metro Transit and Sound Transit also have endorsed the proposal. That grows from the concern that simple HOV lanes clogged with traffic now frustrate any vision for stronger bus rapid transit routes serving throughout the critical north-south routes on the Eastside. There is enormous appeal to the ancillary benefit of speed-reliable express toll lanes: a backbone for bus rapid transit networks without huge costs for separate right-of-way. The Miami, San Diego, Minneapolis, and San Francisco areas already are leading the way in integrating express bus expansions into their express toll lane plans.

Another important endorsement of the express toll lane approach on I-405 comes on behalf of an expert review panel for the project and offered by Robert Poole, a national transportation consultant and Director of Transportation Policy for the free-market-oriented Reason Foundation. Poole and the Reason Foundation have for years vigorously pushed for broader use of managed lane tolling to make American transportation systems more cost-effective and efficient.

In fact, environmentally-inclined transportation gurus, especially at the Environmental Defense Fund, align their own arguments with Poole’s on the benefits from express toll lanes. Fewer hours of stalled traffic and better bus rapid transit weigh the scales in favor of using variable tolling to make highways more efficient, avoid the dollar cost and land gobble of huge highway build-outs, and lower  greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s not to like about a proposal that promises faster travel, less delay, more efficient use of highways, a user-based revenue source for highway improvement costs that lessens the pressure for statewide gas tax increases, and in the bargain helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

If there is a jam up in Olympia, the main explanation seems to lie in the stiff resistance to the I-405 express toll lane proposal offered by former Mercer Island state Sen. Jim Horn, a Republican leader in Olympia on transportation until his election defeat in 2004. Horn now speaks for the Eastside Transportation Association, the group over the years consistently allied with views of Bellevue real estate owner Kemper Freeman, Jr. Horn’s senior statesman position in the Republican caucuses has been reinforced by a blizzard of statistics and the passion of his conviction that most transportation problems can best be solved simply by building more highway lanes.

Horn recognizes that some kind of alternative tolling proposal needs to be thrown into the discussion. In a telephone conversation, he  reiterated his long-held affection for gas tax increases. But he has acknowledged that some toll component is probably necessary to fund the remaining important components of the I-405 corridor program. So he urges an eventual flat fee tolling program for all lanes, all days, all hours — maybe a dollar or dollar and a half — for the central section of the I-405 corridor.

With that kind of blunderbuss tolling counter-proposal that eschews the power of premium travel lanes with guaranteed reliability and high use, Horn and his Freeman-centered allies at the Eastside Transportation Association turn their back on the power of premium express lanes with guaranteed reliability and high use now made possible by technology and gaining acceptance around the country.

That plan focuses only on raising money and forgoes efficiency gains for the roadway corridor as a whole. It also offers no vision of how bus rapid transit, a huge need on the Eastside, could quickly and cheaply score a major improvement in how people can get around on the Eastside. And an all day/all lanes toll that would apply even when the corridor was uncongested will push a measure of traffic onto local streets. It’s not a good plan for I-405 and it’s a terrible plan with which to oppose modern options that make better roadway sense, better environmental sense and fairer financial sense.

More broadly, everyone must see the Senate Transportation Committee review of the I-405 express lane toll proposal as an important early indication of what comes next in transportation policy and finance. Will modern, efficiency-driven tolling help shoulder the load for transportation funding even as it reduces the need for peak-driven highway capacity expansions?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.