Higher tolls, more responsive pricing mechanism recommended for I-405 by national consultant

A draft report from University of Minnesota consultants recommends steps to improve “performance of Washington’s tolled I-405 corridor.“The Seattle Times reports on the what was bound to be the headline recommendation:

The top toll on Interstate 405 should be raised beyond the $10 limit, so the express toll lanes don’t break down into delays, says a report by out-of-state experts.

They also suggest the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) should write a much tighter toll algorithm, to make prices rise from the 75-cent minimum toward $10 or beyond much earlier — during those critical minutes when cars suddenly flock into the left-side toll lanes. Higher pricing would prevent sudden overloads, they say.

The Legislature asked for the analysis, described this way by the consultants:

Washington state statute RCW 47.56.880 lists several general performance measures for the I-405 ETL facility. Of these, three measures are of primary interest to this study:

  1. a)  Whether the express toll lanes generate sufficient revenue to pay for all I-405 express toll lane- related operating costs;

  2. b)  Whether the express toll lanes maintain speeds of 45 miles per hour (mph) at least 90 percent of the time during peak periods; and

  3. c)  Whether the average traffic speed changed in the general purpose lanes.

Overall, 

This study finds that the I-405 ETL facility is meeting the financial performance measure, but is missing the ETL speed performance measure.

The Seattle Times points out,

Two performance goals are required by law:

• That the lanes make money. Income has come in at triple the initial estimates. WSDOT is making close to $22 million a year after expenses. That’s lucrative enough that the state is considering bond sales next decade to widen the I-405 chokepoint north of Bothell where two toll lanes narrow to just one.

• That the toll lanes flow 45 mph or faster during at least 90 percent of peak commute times, in accordance with federal standards.

WSDOT acknowledged last winter that the toll lanes fell short, meeting speed goals only 88 percent of the time — but Wednesday’s report shows performance weaker than that for the first half of 2017.

Tolling has long been both controversial and inevitable. Wired Magazine reported recently on Virgia’s I-66 toll road, under the ominous headline “Virginia’s $40 toll road better be the future of driving.”

The express lanes on Interstate 66 near DC, previously reserved for vehicles carrying two or more people, opened up to solo travelers. Except those single-occupancy vehicles have to pay a toll, one that fluctuates according to demand. The world watched, aghast, as tolling prices hit $40 for folks headed into the capital on Tuesday morning…

Forty bucks is a lot for a toll, but it just might be the fair price for the right to drive by yourself down a majorly busy highway.

We’ll see how that works out for them. Clearly, there’s a lot of experimentation involved in getting the right pricing. The Seattle Times story adds,

A recent Seattle Times analysis found the toll lane averaged only 42 mph this spring across a four-hour morning period from Lynnwood to Bothell, and flowed only 23 mph at the worst time of 7:35 a.m. Toll lanes met the 45 mph standard in other segments.

Slowdowns there are related to the $10 maximum toll, which was designed to assuage political worries that Washington state was building “so-called Lexus lanes” for the rich.

“The $10 maximum toll was predicted to be rare,” the Minnesota report says.

But the top rate actually took effect 15 percent of peak hours, and in some months 20 percent of more — which consultants consider far too high. Once the toll lanes hit a price ceiling, it’s impossible to manage the volumes of cars by pricing.

WSDOT sees change coming.

Patty Rubstello, the state toll director, has previously said in public that higher rates eventually should be discussed. However, she and lawmakers chose not to make proposals in 2016 or 2017. Other tweaks to I-405 toll operations should be tried first, Rubstello said.

A moving target.