The February 5th Seattle Times front-page article “Life in the Toll Lane” exemplifies the WSDOT failure to consider HOT “deficiencies”. What began as a way to reduce travel times for all I-405 commuters, was later decreed “the only unallocated source of revenue generated in the state”. Now, according to the article, the WSDOT changed its prime goal from "financing more road capacity to managing congestion”.
It’s not clear what “managing congestion” means, but it’s clear spending $484 million to limit one of the three I-405 lanes between Lynnwood and Bothell, and two of the five lanes between Bothell and Bellevue, to +3 HOV and HOT fees has done little to reduce travel times for most commuters. A PSRC, “Stuck in Traffic: 2015 Report” dealing with the area’s major roadway congestion showed I-405 had little if any delays until Bothell on the route from Lynnwood to Tukwila or after Bothell between Tukwila and Lynnwood. Thus there was no need to restrict that portion of the route to +3HOV and HOT as a way to “manage congestion” (assuming doing so means reducing congestion). And there is little indication it has.
The more heavily congested Bothell-to-Bellevue portion benefitted from an additional lane in each direction over much of the route. Rather than use it as an additional GP lane the WSDOT chose to use it as a second HOV lane, both with HOT and +3HOV. They could have better “managed congestion” by temporarily allowing GP use of the existing lane and +2HOV on the new lanes to see the impact on velocities and commute times. How much would GP lane velocities increase and how would that affect +2HOV lane velocities.
The WSDOT could use the I-405 “Pilot Program” results to predict velocities with the single +2HOV or with a single +3HOV and HOT lane along that portion of the route. It provided them with all sorts of data as to how average lane velocities decrease with increasing number of vehicles and how HOT use and tolls increase as GP velocities decrease. Not only could they predict what velocities would be today they could do so for commuters with the projected 800,000 added population. There is little indication the WSDOT has done so and will likely never do so dooming I-405 commuters to a choice between Lynnwood and Bellevue of ever increasing GP lane delays and ever increasing HOT fees.
Even more “dubious” is the WSDOT approach to “managing congestion” by planning to use two of the future four lanes from Bothell to Lynnwood and from Bellevue to Renton for +3HOV and HOT. The PSRC report concluded the Bellevue to Renton portion of I-405 had the most delays; “likely” because there are only three lanes. Common sense “managing congestion” would surely require the WSDOT estimate how many vehicles would be allowed on the two HOV lanes to meet the 45 mph goal and what the two GP lane velocities would be with the remaining vehicles with future traffic projections before embarking on an additional $1 billion for HOT.
Instead the legislature’s only requirements for WSDOT doing so are the I-405 "Pilot Program" toll revenue exceeds operating costs and average velocity exceeds 45 mph 90% of the time. They claim the $16 million profit, triple "state predictions", and the anticipating $22 million this year shows, "They’re so popular”. They ignore the “possibility” GP congestion forces them to do so. The fact that average tolls during the year increased from $1.75 to $2.99 “suggests” increased GP lane congestion will compel even more commuters pay higher tolls. The state commissioners’ decision not to raise the peak tolls this year to $15.00 apparently delays the inevitability that will likely make them “less popular”.
The WSDOT (and Seattle Times) claims “success” because average velocities met the 45 mph requirement 89% of the time. They chose to average them over 8 hours and for the entire year. A far more “meaningful” basis for proceeding would be requiring some percentage of commuters averaged 45 mph. The WSDOT should publish what that level was during the last quarter. It’s likely far lower than 90% and will only decrease with future growth unless HOT fees increase substantially forcing more vehicles on GP lanes and more congestion. I-405 commuters on GP and HOV lanes surely deserve to know what to expect.
The bottom line is the I-405 HOT Pilot Program has been a disaster for the vast majority of commuters that future traffic growth will only exacerbate. It's absurd the WSDOT concludes the way to “manage congestion” is to limit two of the future four lanes between Lynnwood and Bothell and Bellevue to Renton to
+3HOV and HOT. Those leading the WSDOT and the
House and Senate Transportation committee that don’t recognize that reality
need to reconsider or be replaced.