Thousands are fed up with the I-405 tolls. But is the system working?

It’s not uncommon to hear honking horns on the Interstate 405 morning commute, but David Hablewitz hears those blaring horns more often than most — he’s often their target. This isn’t because he’s a bad driver; on the day I rode with him from Lynnwood to Bellevue, Hablewitz didn’t even change lanes. The instigator for the horns is a large, sans-serif sign advertising Hablewitz’s website, stop405tolls.org, on the back of his white Dodge Dakota. The site’s URL has become a siren for opponents of one of the Eastside’s most controversial government projects.

david hablewitz created a petition opposing the i-405 tolls. it has garnered 31,500 signatures. Photo by Rachel Coward

david hablewitz created a petition opposing the i-405 tolls. it has garnered 31,500 signatures. Photo by Rachel Coward

Hablewitz is tall and remarkably lean, thanks in large part to an active lifestyle; his covered truck bed often serves as a de facto camping tent and bicycle carrier. He hasn’t been cycling much lately, though. The owner of a small project management firm instead has devoted much of his spare time of late to eliminating the Washington State Department of Transportation’s high-occupancy toll lanes on I-405.

“Think using a carrot and a stick to get a horse to do something,” Hablewitz said as we merged into the southbound lanes near Alderwood Mall. “They’re hitting us with the stick, but they’re not giving us the carrot. This road right here, they did nothing but put a toll in there and kick all the two-person carpools out.”

In 2002, WSDOT and Eastside communities agreed on the I-405 Corridor Program, a series of more than 150 projects to be designed to reduce congestion in the growing area. The focal points of the plan were to add up to two lanes in each direction along the interstate, implement bus rapid transit, and ramp up transit frequency by half.

Some sections of widened highway made their debut last September, but there was a catch — the ability to use the new lanes, implemented between Bellevue and Bothell, required the vehicle to have three occupants or pay a toll that fluctuated based on demand, similar to the system in place on state Route 167.

Because of this, the left side of I-405 is likely the most loathed strip of asphalt in the state. An online petition opposing the toll lanes, which Hablewitz helped create, has thus far garnered more than 31,500 signatures, plenty of which are accompanied by frustration-laden comments. “Traffic backed up 2 miles trying to cut thru medina last night. Time to admit this is a failure,” one person wrote. “We have been paying for 405 for years… & it is still broken. Get the Government out of it!!” commented another.

Traffic was relatively smooth when Hablewitz and I braved I-405, but that still meant we rarely topped 20 mph, and we came to a standstill on multiple occasions during our 46-minute, 18.5-mile trip from Alderwood Mall to the Northeast Fourth Street exit in Bellevue.

Hablewitz’s favorite roadside attractions on the route are the WSDOT signs that explain why the state widened I-405 and implemented tolls. “They say the tolling reduces congestion. The reality is, the tolling does nothing to improve congestion,” Hablewitz said as we passed a sign near state Route 522. “This is living proof. … We’re crawling along here at 12 miles per hour.”

HOT-lane rides on that morning cost $6. There were stretches when the lanes were largely empty, but most of the trip they were filled with a steady stream of vehicles traveling twice the speed of our Dakota in the general-purpose lanes. Many horn-honkers supportive of Hablewitz’s message were, strangely, HOT lane customers.

During their first three months of operation, the HOT lanes generated $3.7 million in revenue; the state expected $1 million. If the HOT lane is a failed product, as Hablewitz and many other critics say, then there is significant demand for something that supposedly doesn’t work.

Puget Sound-area drivers are familiar with toll lanes, but not all of them are created equal. The most common use of tolls in our region is to pay for construction costs. When a driver is tolled crossing Lake Washington on state Route 520, or the Tacoma Narrows on state Route 16, her toll finances the construction of the bridge she’s driving on.

Photo by Rachel Coward

Photo by Rachel Coward

The I-405 toll will fund future corridor projects, but, unlike the tolls on routes 16 and 520, its primary purpose is to shape behavior on a clogged highway. “The existing HOV lane wasn’t performing to our standard. We want to have an average speed of 45 miles per hour, 90 percent of the time, and I-405 was failing that 200 days of the year,” said Patty Rubstello, WSDOT’s director of tolling and a former I-405 engineer.

In response, WSDOT upped the carpool requirement from two to three people, but that alone would have left sparsely used lanes; around 80 percent of carpools have just two occupants. So the state initiated the toll to optimize and monetize those restricted lanes. “By applying the pricing mechanism,” Rubstello said, “you let them buy back into the lane and let the price be the regulator.”

All this is necessary because, as every Eastside commuter can attest, I-405 can’t handle the current volume of rush-hour commuters. Though every roadway differs, a smooth traffic flow usually breaks down when a lane sees more than 2,000 cars per mile each hour. “Two thousand and one — that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center. “You’re stacked nose-to-tail like a NASCAR race, and as soon as you slow down, the guy behind you has to slow faster than you did. So you go from 50 miles per hour to 20, or 10, or 2.”

Were you to watch the dysfunctional I-405 traffic flow from above, you’d see pockets of traffic speeding up and slowing down for miles, as though the cars were folds in the bellows of an automotive accordion. These reverberations can last hours after the trigger incident takes place.

Building more lanes wouldn’t solve this problem. There’s not much room to uniformly expand I-405; through Bellevue, you have things like Overlake Hospital in the way. Furthermore, state research found that even a 16-lane I-405 wouldn’t meet demand in the growing region. Expanded freeways also incite what transportation researchers call induced demand. Think of the pool of Eastside commuters as water in a reservoir. If you double the capacity of a discharge pipe at the bottom of the dam, the result isn’t the same volume of water coming out at twice the velocity; rather, double the amount of water surges out at the same velocity as before. So double the number of lanes on I-405 (at huge cost), and you’d have twice as many cars filling the lanes during commute hours, negating any congestion relief.

Since ramping up supply wasn’t feasible, WSDOT had the unpleasant task of reducing demand by increasing the cost of a rush-hour commute. “Transportation is an economic good — you raise the price, and people travel less,” Hallenbeck said. “When Alaska (Airlines) does that, it’s perfectly fine; it’s business. But when Washington State DOT does that, it’s stupid damn government not doing what I want. But it’s just economics.”

HOT lanes have been subject to plenty of academic scrutiny, and the research has yielded specific use cases in which a HOT lane is a better congestion-reduction tool than an HOV or general-purpose lane. University of California, Berkeley researchers found that HOT lanes are the best congestion reliever in corridors that already see significant congestion and have a steep projected increase in demand, while UC, Irvine scholars said that HOT lane potential can be realized only by a populous willing to pay the tolls.

I-405 and its drivers fit those descriptions, yet the opposition din has overpowered a more nuanced discussion of transportation economics. Disdain for the I-405 tolls forced Gov. Jay Inslee to announce a spate of patches, forced Eastside legislators to introduce bills to amend the tolling, forced the state Transportation Commission to open up the lanes on nights and weekends, and reportedly forced former WSDOT Secretary Lynn Peterson out of a job — the Legislature, citing frustration with the tolling and the state Route 99 tunnel, denied her appointment in February after she spent three years at that post.

Patty Rubstello, director of tolling for the Washington State Department of Transportation, periodicially commutes by bus to her downtown seattle office from Woodinville. Photo by Rachel Coward

Patty Rubstello, director of tolling for the Washington State Department of Transportation, periodicially commutes by bus to her downtown seattle office from Woodinville. Photo by Rachel Coward

There were issues on WSDOT’s part, none more obvious than the Bothell bottleneck. Northbound drivers see the interstate shrink from five lanes to three north of the S.R. 522 exit, causing traffic to compact at that juncture. Thus, commuters in the northernmost areas of the I-405 corridor have seen commutes worsen since the congestion-relieving tolls were put in place.

“From the last time we did our modeling efforts up to implementation, there has been tremendous growth in that area up to Snohomish County,” Rubstello said. “We improved things in Kirkland, which pushed more traffic up to Bothell, but that extra growth just exacerbated things.”

There have been other issues with the toll-lane rollout. Accessing the HOT lane is difficult, especially on short trips, and drivers had to purchase $15 Flex Passes to use the lane. Buses in the north end of the corridor have had to make use of the interstate’s shoulder, as weaving between the HOT lanes and exits proved difficult.

Critics like Hablewitz believe these are signs of a bungled rollout by the state. “As a certified project manager, one who has done projects that impacted over 100,000 (people) … I understand megaprojects like this,” he said. “You have to move in very small steps. One, you’re looking at behavior change — people have to get used to these things. And two, you need to know if any one of those components negatively impacts your process. What (WSDOT) did, they just threw it all at us.”

Rubstello sees the rollout as more incremental. “We knew that once we went operational, we would need to make adjustments,” she said. Indeed, during the first few months of HOT lane operation, the state has amended numerous access points and tweaked operations for transit.

But that’s not enough for opponents. “It’s been a nightmare,” said Jeff Kallinen, who owns East West Truck Lines in Bothell. “It has completely changed I-405. It’s shoving everybody off the road, increasing travel time by at least an hour. If you move over to I-5, it’s the same thing over there.” Truck traffic can’t use the HOT lanes — something WSDOT may reconsider in the future — so Kallinen and other operators said they’re avoiding the route whenever possible.

Toll-lane opponents aren’t bickering without a solution. Many feel WSDOT could reinstitute the two-person HOV lane, and possibly employ one HOV lane and one HOT lane.

That’s a solution Marcelo Araujo would like to see. Araujo is president of 4 Seasons Cleaning. His employees work in teams of two, and used the HOV lanes driving to jobs. “They used to use the carpool lane and get off (the highway) whenever they wanted,” Araujo said. “Now, if they’re in the toll lane, sometimes they have to go all the way to the next exit and then come back, and they actually lose more time in the process.”

To Rubstello, that’s just more complexity. “How do you explain to the driver which lane to be in? And, getting back to the two-plus carpools, they were already filling up a single lane. Let them in, and you’re back to congestion.”

There’s a thornier issue with toll roads, one that isn’t as easily explained. The Eastside was planned for the car and is populated by hundreds of thousands of car owners. Is it equitable to make people, particularly those with low incomes, pay for reliable transportation, especially if the toll reaches $10 a trip? “You’ve got people spending their first hour at work paying off their commute,” Hablewitz said.

Paying $10 to get to work is painful for a minimum-wage earner, but distaste with that notion fails to assess the alternative of a broadly clogged road without a fast lane. In that scenario, a worker whose commute is tangled in congestion might miss an hour of work, and possibly lose her job. HOT lanes like those on I-405 still offer free transport — a driver is welcome to remain in the general purpose lanes — and the toll lane can function as a safety valve that reliably lets a traveler whip past gridlock. In fact, the HOT lane isn’t being used only by visibly affluent drivers; during my trip with Hablewitz, we were passed by plumbers, vanpools, and old Hondas.

It’s a painful measure, one replete with opposition, but it appears to be working. During the first quarter of operation, average travel times in the area were down 14 minutes year-over-year for HOT lane drivers, and they fell seven minutes for southbound general-purpose-lane drivers (peak evening commutes were four minutes slower for northbound drivers due to the Bothell bottleneck). More than a million toll lane trips happen each month. And transit — the ultimate equity tool in HOT systems —
is benefiting. Some bus routes have seen average travel times dip by almost 10 percent over a year prior, and transit agencies are reporting increased ridership to WSDOT.

Opposition rhetoric is that the HOT lanes force drivers to sit in traffic or pay a toll, but that’s not the case. What they do require is a change in behavior. If a driver wants a shorter commute, he must buddy up with two passengers, pay a toll, take a bus, or leave earlier. This is by design; without changes, traffic will continue to become worse for everyone in the region, and there will be no option for a fast trip, regardless of price.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of “425 Business.”