This blog post is long overdue. This is the nature of a 100% grass roots operation. Sometimes work and family take precedence.
A team of legislators published this letter to WSDOT making specific requests for action to relieve the problems that have been created as a result of the introduction of tolling and the other changes to the I-405 corridor. It is great to see we have brought this issue into the light and exposed the failings of using tolling as a method of reducing congestion; though it still needs to be recognized by our leadership that tolling is also a horribly wasteful, expensive method for collecting taxes, creates a division of economic classes, and deters carpooling. We also agree that it should not take getting a bill passed into law to tell WSDOT how to do their job right. Unfortunately, that is the only tool available to us, the public.
Our representatives — both those who created the bill and those who signed this letter — are doing the right thing in representing the interests of their constituents. This is a team effort and proof that it is a non-partisan solution even when the steps to achieve the solution appear to be partisan. “When no one is a hero, everyone is a hero.” I personally am grateful to Representative Harmsworth and Senator Hill for stepping forward and creating the bills to spark action. I am also grateful to see the signatures of all three of my representatives, Senator McAuliffe, Representative Moscoso and Representative Stanford on this letter. There are many more signatures and supporters of both the bills and this letter who are deserving of thanks.
This is a good next step of many more steps that are needed to get things fixed.
To address the specifics of the letter:
– Adjusting access at 520 and 527: Great. Particularly making it possible to get into the HOT lanes as drivers approach the 520 merge northbound. This, combined with restoring the 4th GPL that once went from 520 to NE 70th St will relieve that congestion point. This change is a direct result of one person on our team, a trucker, who researched and found where WSDOT documented it as a 4th GPL, NOT an auxiliary lane. (Note: This letter does not address restoring the other segments where the 4th GPL was removed.)
– Improve billing and customer service. This is a great aspiration that acknowledges there are numerous issues in the billing process that demand improvement. Unfortunately, it won’t address the issues of passes not working on many motorcycles and hundreds of models of cars with a type of windshield glass that the transponders don’t work. Also, there are no specific Service Level Agreements (SLAs) defined in the statement, so unfortunately, this does nothing to force an improvement. In the end, if tolling didn’t exist, there would be no need for this entry at all. It would save the $0.15 per toll paid to a company to operate and maintain the toll system. It would save the $0.20 per toll spent on the Customer Service Center. It would save the $0.19 per toll spent on state operations and credit card processing. (For comparison, $0.54 of each toll goes to paying for the toll system while 1/2 cent of every dollar paid in gas tax goes to collecting a gas taxes.) Eliminate the toll and eliminate the need for 120+ people to answer the phones and deal with calls from hundreds of thousands of disgruntled drivers (yes, 226,000 toll charges affected in just 1 billing error event). A security breach of this system could put the entire state population at risk of personal financial information theft. THIS SYSTEM IS INTENDED TO BE EXTENDED TO HIGHWAYS IN CITIES ACROSS THE STATE INCLUDING I-90 and I-5.
– Eliminate the tolls during evening non-peak hours, weekends, and holidays. This is the meat of this letter. A great reprieve from the impacts for off peak hours and a huge, incremental step in the right direction. If we can get the double-white lines removed from as much of the road as possible, this will make a real difference in use of the roadway, especially when there are accidents or construction.
– Employ hard shoulder driving. We brought this up to WSDOT in conversations earlier, specifically during peak hours in the section north of 522 where the buses are currently doing that. This could be a quick relief to that section as it would add 50% to the GPL capacity. The Federal Highway Administration has guidelines on this. It certainly has an impact on safety. This is a much less invasive step than imposing a toll and they should have done this before considering implementing a toll.
The reference that “travel times have improved through the corridor overall” is misleading as it implies tolling has improved traffic. The reality is that tolling has done nothing to reduce congestion. In fact, for the section north of NE 160th St, where the only change they made was to start tolling, the general purpose lanes (GPL) have gotten significantly worse! All improvements are a direct result of the other road improvements made including making 5 contiguous lanes.
The changes listed in this letter are a good step forward. Everyone who signed the petition should recognize that you can make a difference. We still need to see 2 person carpools given access during peak hours and the wasteful, class-separating toll system removed altogether in favor of a more efficient source of revenue. Our concern is that there is no specific criteria defined for determining success at the end of this 2 year “trial”. All it must do is cover the costs of the toll operations. There are no specific performance measurements and there is no way to differentiate performance improvements made by all the highway improvements vs the collection of a toll tax. So WSDOT is guaranteed to be able to declare “success” regardless of the reason. As proven in other studies, issues like the economy and the price of gas have a huge impact on Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and use of alternatives like bus ridership. Gas prices are at record lows and the economy is doing great in our region. When either of these change and WSDOT will claim the improvements are a result of tolling.
Our second concern is that the state will issue a bond against the revenue from the tolls, thus locking in our obligation to continue paying them. We are making progress, but have a long way to go.