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March 1, 2010 at 9:00 PM

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Interstate 405 toll lanes gain traction in Senate

Posted by Mike Lindblom

Within four years, solo drivers between Lynnwood and Bellevue could pay a toll to enter the carpool lanes of Interstate 405 -- and avoid congestion in the crowded general lanes -- under House Bill 2941, which won endorsement Monday from the Senate Transportation Committee.

But the Senate version makes a huge change. Two-person carpools could still use the lanes for free, whereas the original bill would have required three riders to avoid the toll.

The plan is part of the state government's broader program to spread toll lanes to several urban freeways this decade.

The state Department of Transportation would convert the carpool lane, and build one new lane each way, as high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes, similar to the experimental HOT lanes on Highway 167 in the Green River Valley.

Skeptics on the Senate committee, such as Curtis King, R-Yakima, argue that when the state boosted gas taxes in the early 2000s, drivers were told the new lanes would be for general traffic.

The pro-roads Eastside Transportation Association points out that toll collections to date along Highway 167 aren't even enough to pay for the tolling system, though the DOT says it will be in the black two years from now. There would need to be "huge misery" in the general lanes for drivers to shell out the kind of HOT-lane tolls the state wants, argues former Sen. Jim Horn of Mercer Island.

Supporters compared I-405 to HOT-lane systems in California and Florida that make money and are expanding.

April Putney, of the environmental group Futurewise, called the bill a good start. "Tolling is a good way to manage congestion, help our air quality, and ultimately reduce single-car demand," she testified.

Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, sounded more interested in dollars.

When the state boosted the gas tax, lawmakers left projects like I-405 expansion less than fully funded, because the counties were supposed to pass a "regional transportation investment district" (RTID) to fill the gap with local taxes. That strategy collapsed when the Roads & Transit ballot measure failed in 2007. (Voters passed a Sound Transit measure in 2008 to build rail lines to the suburbs in three directions, plus other projects.)

"So now we have tolls," Haugen said.

Predicting HOT-lane income is pretty much a crapshoot, but the state estimated a range of $5 million to $21 million net for I-405 in 2016. If the DOT is this fortunate, toll money can be applied elsewhere, for instance to help pay for new Renton-area HOT lanes. The state's strategy for a 40-mile HOT corridor, from Lynnwood to Puyallup can be found here.

Tolls or not, committee leaders said there will most likely be a big transportation tax increase later this decade, for highways all over the state.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.