The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

HOT Lanes to start 4/26 on SR167 amid debate over use of revenue

'HOT' lanes wide open to solo drivers -- for a price

4-year test on state Route 167 begins April 26 LARRY LANGE

This month will see a first in the Puget Sound area's transportation system: Solo drivers will be able to use the car pool lanes on state Route 167 without getting a ticket -- if they pay for the privilege.

"High-occupancy toll" or HOT lanes open at 5 a.m. April 26, kicking off a four-year test to see whether drivers will pay to move out of crowded general-traffic lanes into the car pool lanes for a price that will vary almost by the minute and be assessed electronically. It could be the latest step in a return to state highway tolls that began last summer on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

"This will be a new situation that drivers will need to get used to," said Craig Stone, urban corridors administrator for the state Department of Transportation. Similar lanes are already in use in places such as California, Minnesota and Texas.

Preparations for Washington's HOT lanes already are visible. New signs and electronic gear have been put in place. On April 12, two weeks before the new lane arrangement starts, crews will begin painting a new white double line that will more sharply delineate the HOT lanes from the others on the highway between Auburn and Renton.

Drivers will pay to use the 9-mile stretch of HOV lane between the cities, with the amount based on how congested the lanes are. With no congestion the toll will be 50 cents -- the low end of the scale -- to lure drivers to the HOV lanes and relieve congestion in the others.

If the lanes are heavily congested, the toll could cost several dollars. But it could save drivers time they'd otherwise spend in more crowded general lanes. State officials think tolls in badly congested periods could rise to $4, though an electronic tracking system is set up to assess a maximum of $9.

Unlike the Narrows, there'll be no tollbooths. Electronic scanners will note a HOT-lane user's passage by reading a car-mounted transponder containing an electronic chip, and the system will deduct the charge from a prepaid account.

Motorists also can pay the charges on their credit-card accounts. The lanes will remain free for car pools of two or more, motorcycles and buses. Drivers who car pool part of the time but drive alone on some occasions can block the transponder readings when they have passengers.

State Patrol troopers will enforce the HOT lanes, watching for the system to flash lights when it reads a lone driver's transponder. If a lone driver doesn't have a transponder, there will be no flashing lights, and those drivers will be stopped.

The immediate object, state officials say, is to make more efficient use of state Route 167, the Valley Freeway that links the south end of Lake Washington to Puyallup and other points in Pierce County. The Renton-to-Auburn segment was picked, officials said, because car pool lane use there is relatively low: On average, 900 vehicles use them northbound during a morning peak hour, compared with 1,420 on Interstate 405 and 1,470 on Interstate 5. Southbound 950 vehicles use them during the peak hour on 167 compared with 1,560 on I-405 and 1,550 on I-5.

But state lawmakers also hope the toll system, if it stays, can help pay for improvements on the highway and supplement gas-tax revenue, which officials expect to decline along with federal highway cash.

"Rather than try and build our way out and just keep building more and more lanes, we need to see if we can manage our way to using our existing roads better," said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.

The electronic system will be part of the state's "Good to Go" system used since last summer by toll-payers on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Officials say computer models estimate the lanes should increase the traffic flow 10 percent based on the number of vehicles during the peak hours, but "that's what we want to find out" for certain during the experiment, Stone said. Toll charges can change every 3 minutes based on the system's reading of traffic.

Commuters on a similar system on Interstate 394 in Minneapolis saved 10 to 12 minutes per trip using HOT lanes on that 11-mile segment, said that program's manager, Ken Buckeye.

Project manager Patty Rubstello said users of other systems include people at all income levels. She said the state Route 167 project, costing $17.8 million to initiate, should begin paying its expenses within two years but end with little extra cash at the end of the four-year test program. Legislators would decide what to do with the leftover money and could spend it on maintenance, construction or repairs to the highway or to expand bus or car pool and van pool service on it.

Some think that's questionable.

Michael Ennis of the free-market think tank Washington Policy Center said the money should be spent on the highway because highway users pay the tolls.

"It should benefit those who paid it," Ennis said, though he said his group supports the idea of HOT lanes to increase traffic on under-used lanes. Another group that backs them is the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, where Regional Policy Director Rob Johnson said the experiment will show how drivers respond to tolls that vary through the day.

Johnson said polls show motorists are more favorable to tolls if the revenue can be spent on transit as well as roads. "We need the flexibility, as advocates and commuters, to make as many choices as we feel we'd like to make," he said. "If (a highway toll) costs $5 and my bus pass costs $4, I'm getting a really good deal" and can choose to take the bus.


To sign up for the state Route 167 "HOT" lanes, go online to or call 866-936-8246.

Car-mounted transponders can be bought at a customer-service outlet at the Tacoma Mall, 215 S. 56th St., Suite 306. Another outlet will open April 10 at Wal-Mart in the Auburn SuperMall. Transponders that transmit trips for toll payment are $12 for a windshield-mounted type or $30 for ones attached to license plates. Shields, used to block the transponder when a driver is part of a car pool, cost $3.50.

Violators can get $124 tickets, either for crossing the double lines marking the lanes without a transponder or for violating an HOV lane. In the event of an accident, the monitoring system can be shut down and the lanes opened to all traffic until the accident is cleared away.

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