Port of Seattle spokesperson Peter McGraw remembered how it took him more than an hour to move six city blocks after a semi-truck carrying fish overturned and blocked all southbound lanes on state Route 99 near the Alaskan Way Viaduct in March.
“And I got off easy,” McGraw said, with a laugh. “You can kind of see the chaos that inflicts on this city when [accidents like these] happen and the necessity behind [improving] transportation assets.”
With that concern in mind, McGraw said the Port of Seattle is a serious advocate for projects related to infrastructure spending on roads, which explains his support for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program and the tolls that will be charged inside the tunnels.
“In the case of SR 99, having that other critical north-to-south route through Seattle is something that we would be in favor of,” McGraw said. “The Port of Seattle supports this project so we can continue to have efficient and reliable movement of cargo through the industrial areas of Seattle.”
By the end of 2017, as many as three major roads in King County could have photo-enforced tolls in their lanes, with SR 99 in the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel and express toll lanes on Interstate 405 joining the already-tolled state Route 520 bridge.
How did this occur?
Drivers on I-405 experience some of the worst traffic in the state, and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes (for vehicles with two or more people) are crowding and not meeting the state and federal minimum speed of 45 mph. To encourage a higher volume of people moving on I-405, the express toll lane will provide carpools of three or more people an exemption from the toll at all times of the day, in addition to carpools of two or more people being given the same incentive during off-peak hours.
Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) project engineer Jennifer Charlebois said that the goal of the express toll lanes was to manage traffic and raise revenue for future I-405 corridor projects. She said that revenue generated from the I-405 tolls will go straight to the tolling facility and any excess revenue will be used to improve the corridor.
As for SR 99, the 2009 legislation authorized and instructed WSDOT to build a bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The Legislature also mandated that part of the funding for the SR 99 tunnel come from tolling. Revenue collected from tolls is expected to generate more than $1 billion in gross revenue over 30 years, according to the advisory committee.
Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) executive director Reema Griffith explained that with the SR 520 bridge, there was greater emphasis placed on raising revenue. With the price tag of building a replacement bridge hovering around $5 billion, the state Legislature mandated that the tolls generate a little more than $1 billion in revenue to offset about a quarter of total expenses. Like the I-405 corridor, the SR-520 toll bridge was also designed to manage traffic volumes.
As of now, the proposed toll rate for SR 99 is projected to cost drivers at least $1 all day, with a 25-cent increase during the peak periods of 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. WSTC will not finalize the actual rates until the construction of the tunnel gets closer to its completion date, near the end of 2017.
Still, WSTC unanimously passed the toll-rate range to be between 75 cents minimum and $10 maximum for those with a Good to Go! pass on the I-405 express toll lanes. WSTC, the group responsible for setting the toll rates, also ruled that rates will vary, depending on the speed in the flow of traffic: If the speed slows down, the rate goes up; if speeds start increasing, the rate will go down.
Those without the pass must pay an additional $2 with the original tolling bill through the Pay By Mail method.
Griffith said the reason there are discrepancies behind the toll rates for these corridors are because each toll serves a different purpose. With the I-405 corridor, WSTC focused on the traffic speed and the reliability of the trips, so it followed a toll-rate model where the rate changes in real time.
As for projects like the SR 99 tunnel and SR 520, the revenue is expected to go straight to paying off the expenses of the projects themselves, so the rates are set based on the time of the day and the day of the week.
Transit, vanpool, motorcycles, in-service emergency vehicles, maintenance, enforcement and tow trucks approved by Washington State Patrol (WSP) are exempt from the toll bills.
Lessons from SR 520
With more than three years of tolling being enforced on the SR 520 bridge, WSDOT toll operations director Patty Rubstello said that her agency deems the project so far as a success.
“Our projections on how traffic would respond, as well as the revenue collections, were really spot-on,” Rubstello said.
Charlebois said that the revenue generated from the SR 520 bridge is on track to meet the required $1 billion in funding. WSDOT’s annual report also indicated that net revenue from July 2013 to June 2014 was more than $50 million.
Rubstello acknowledged that WSDOT encountered some challenges during the early stages of the project.
“Because it’s an existing facility and we had [ongoing] construction work to replace the bridge, we tried to find a location to put that equipment that would protect it from all that construction work,” Rubstello said.
After placing the equipment on the east high-rise bridge structure, then came the challenges of having to work with the environmental sensitivity.
“We had to use special lighting and learn about the effects it may have on the fishes and other species in Lake Washington,” Rubstello said.
Rubstello said that the implementation of the tolls on the SR 520 bridge have led to a 10-percent increase in traffic on I-90 and a 9-percent increase for state Route 522, which travels north of Lake Washington. She said that those changes in the traffic volumes on these roadways were expected and were within the projections.
She added, however, that it will be difficult to determine how much of the shift in congestion for those two roads will be affected by SR 520 bridge tolls in the future.
“Clearly, there’s people that still avoid crossing [SR] 520, but we also know that there’s a lot of growth occurring in the region,” Rubstello said. “Employment has gone up. We can’t necessarily attribute all the changes in the volume of traffic to the tolling facilities.”
Enforcing the tolls
To help qualified carpoolers adjust to changes on I-405, the state is offering to waive the cost of a $15 transponder that drivers are required to stick on their windshields.
The fee for the transponder, called the “Flex Pass,” can be waived if drivers log onto rideshareonline.com, follow the instructions and fill out survey questions asking them if they will carpool with two or more people at least once a week.
These Flex Passes have a manual switch in which the driver can choose whether to adjust the transponder to the green “TOLL” option or the red “HOV” option, which tell the toll cameras whether the driver qualifies for a toll exemption.
Despite the challenge of having to monitor precise level of occupancy among carpool vehicles driving through the express toll lanes, WSDOT spokesperson Patty Michaud vows that WSDOT and WSP will work together to track down any illegal use of the new lanes.
“We definitely hear from people that it’s important for us to enforce,” Michaud said. “If you have it in the HOV mode, when you pass underneath the toll equipment, they’ll flash a white light, which hints to WSP that that car qualifies for an exemption. So when the WSP do check, they can pull you over for cheating.”
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