Express toll lanes will hopefully alleviate traffic on I-405, but at a price: Unlike today’s HOV lanes, which are free for vehicles with multiple passengers, drivers in carpools may still have to pay to use the lanes at certain times of the day.
Solo drivers have the mixed blessing of being able to use the express lanes for a fee.
A state law passed in 2011 authorized the Washington State Department of Transportation to create express toll lanes, also known as high occupancy/toll or HOT lanes. Currently, HOV lanes don’t always meet free-flow conditions of 45 to 60 m.p.h. during peak periods.
The idea of the HOT lanes is to use dynamic pricing to control how many people use the lanes, in order to keep traffic moving at least 45 m.p.h. at least 90 percent of the time.
"It’s a dynamic system," said Kim Henry, I-405/SR 167 Director for WSDOT. "It’s all about what the demand is at any given time, so the rates will vary."
Making traffic move faster in the HOT lanes will also speed up traffic in the general purpose lanes, Henry said.
"If you take a portion of the freeway — one lane or two lanes, depending on where you are — and you take that part of the freeway out of the performance area and move it into a high-performance area, you are suddenly now moving a higher volume out of part of the freeway," he said. "And once you get that higher volume moving, that benefits everybody, which is what we’ve been seeing on Highway 167 and what we’ve also seen in other parts of the country."
The first phase of the project, funded by the gas tax, will create HOT lanes on I-405 from Lynnwood to Bellevue that will open in mid-2015. In addition to the existing HOV lane, which will be converted to a HOT lane, a second HOT lane will run between Bothell and Bellevue.
HOT lanes on I-405 from Bellevue to Renton and on State Route 167 may be added later if WSDOT gets funding.
The Washington State Transportation Commission began discussing toll rates for the HOT lanes at a meeting last week, but the Commission won’t make a final decision on minimum and maximum rates until May 2014. The Commission is also considering exemptions for either two- or three-person carpools, and making the HOT lanes free at certain times of day.
Although the rates will be set by a computer program and will vary dynamically, the Commission may set minimum and maximum toll rates.
If it doesn’t, the toll rate could be free at times and as high as the market allows at other times. The Commission is still considering how to define carpools — as two people or as three or more — but it’s likely that two-person carpools won’t always be able to use the lanes for free, as they do now.
The State Patrol will enforce usage of the HOT lanes — like it already does with HOV lanes, said Craig Stone, assistant secretary for WSDOT’s Toll Division.
People who want to use the express toll lanes will have to sign up for a Good to Go! pass with a switch that indicates whether they’re carpooling or driving alone.
When drivers enter the HOT lanes at one of 20 "toll points," a light will come on to show they’re a carpool, and officers can visually check to see how many people are in the vehicle. Solo drivers who try to use the HOT lanes without a pass will be billed by mail.