The WSDOT presentation to the Bellevue City Council concerning I-405 HOT status can best be described as, at least for most commuters, attempting to make a “silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. While HOT is a “silk purse” for transit riders, vanpoolers, carpoolers, and those willing to pay the tolls it’s a “sow’s ear” for the vast majority of commuters who are getting very little out of the $484 million the WSDOT spent implementing HOT between Lynnwood and Bellevue.
The number of transit riders benefitting is severely limited by the lack of P&R stalls and bus routes during the peak commute hours. It’s not clear how many are vanpoolers, but the +3 HOV requirement has made carpooling far more difficult. The WSDOT “silk purse” approach was to “maximize” the purported velocity improvements with HOT and “minimize” the number of those paying the tolls and the amount they had to pay.
For example they averaged the velocity improvements over the 5:00 – 9:00 am morning commutes and 3:00 -7:00 p.m. evening commutes instead of the two hours when traffic was heaviest in both directions. They chose to attribute the improvements to HOT despite the fact that additional lanes had been added in both directions between Bellevue and Bothell, the area with the most congestion.
Their “silk purse” approach averaged the tolls paid over the entire year to assert 56% of HOT users only paid 75 cents and that only 3.5 % paid $8.00 and 3.3% paid the maximum $10.00 tolls. The “sow’s ear” reality was that average tolls increased from $1.75 to $2.99 during the year, a 70% increase. Obviously commuters paid far higher tolls over the last quarter. The number of those paying tolls quarterly increased from 3,000,000 to 3,550,000, about 18% during the year. The fact that an 18% increase in those paying the tolls increased average fares by 70% exemplifies the HOT “sow’s ear” reality, “the more paying the toll the more they each pay”.
What’s clear is the WSDOT needs to provide both HOT and GP velocities during the peak two hour morning and afternoon commutes and the percentage of those paying the different tolls for the last quarter of 2016. They’re surely needed for the legislature to decide “whether HOT is a good thing or not”. The enabling legislation also required HOT revenue “pay for itself and achieve 45mph over 90% of the time during daily commute".
The “silk purse” approach heralded the fact toll revenue had exceeded operating costs sufficient to fund a “peak shoulder lane”. The “sow’s ear” reality was whatever the unspecified profit, it was not likely to meet the payments required for the $484 million spent on I-405 HOT. To conclude “profitability" isn’t a problem “suggests” legislators are willing to accept far more commuters being forced to pay higher fares in the future.
While the average HOT lane velocity along the entire route achieves the 45 mph 89% of the 4-hour morning and afternoon “peak periods”, the Bothell-to-Bellevue section did so less than 80% of the time. Again the WSDOT “silk purse” used average velocities for the full year and for their 4-hour peak periods. The “sow’s ear” reality would have shown the results over the last quarter available and the one or two hours when most commuters are using the lanes.
What’s “disappointing” is the legislatures purported “requirements” didn’t include any benefit for I-405 GP lane commuters. They were also promised benefits from HOT, apparently on the assumption the anticipated numbers of commuters willing to pay HOT fees would be greater than the loss of +2HOV carpoolers due to the +3HOV requirement. Yet GP velocities Northbound only increased from 28 to 29 mph despite the fact another lane had been added. Surely using one of the northbound HOT lanes for GP would have substantially increased average velocities, especially during peak commute.
Unfortunately Rep. Clibborn, the chairwomen of the House Transportation Committee, apparently doesn’t understand the “sow’s ear” reality of the I-405 HOT “pilot program”. She refuses to “look at bills to end tolling between Bellevue and Lynnwood” claiming the tolls are “the only unallocated source of revenue generated in the state”. (I suspect her Mercer Island constituents, as well as others using the I-90 Bridge, will be “less than pleased” if her HOT support allows the WSDOT to proceed with their 2006 plans to initiate HOT on the bridge when Sound Transit closes the center roadway.)
Fortunately Sen. King, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is at least waiting until the “experiment is scheduled to end in September”. Hopefully he and others will recognize the disparity between the likely WSDOT “pink purse” assessment and the “sow’s ear” reality of HOT. Commuters throughout the area will pay a heavy price if they don’t.