Monday, November 23, 2015

Thanksgiving tolling travel tips

By Laura Johnson

Thanksgiving is upon us, one of the busiest travel days of the year. With Washington's tolled roadways — SR 520 Bridge, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, I-405 express toll lanes and SR 167 HOT lanes — that means several things.

Higher traffic volumes on Wednesday. Expect heavy traffic volumes as people hit the roadways Wednesday evening. Toll rates on SR 167 HOT lanes and I-405 express toll lanes adjust based on congestion. In the past, we've seen higher than usual toll rates during peak holiday travel times on SR 167 HOT lanes. Drivers on both SR 167 HOT lanes and I-405 express toll lanes may see higher toll rates if large numbers of holiday travelers use the lanes this year.

Holiday carpool rules on I-405. On Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 26, you'll only need two people to form a carpool all day long in the I-405 express toll lanes between Bellevue and Lynnwood.

Make sure you have your Flex Pass in HOV mode and you won't be charged a toll with two or more people in your car. On Friday, Nov. 27, we're back to the 3+ rule for peak hours (5-9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m.).

Why don't the weekday carpool rates apply on Thursday? Since most folks have the day off work, volumes are lighter in the peak period commute times and don't require 3+ to manage demand.

Rates on the SR 520 Bridge. Weekend toll rates will be in effect on the SR 520 Bridge on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 26. Regular rates will return on Friday, Nov. 27.

Lines at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge tollbooths. There'll be lots of out-of-towners paying their tolls with cash or credit cards at the toll booths for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. We typically see backups at the toll booths after turkey dinner between 5 and 10 p.m. Please be patient and prepare to wait if you choose to stop at the toll booths, or you can choose from one of the several payment methods below.

Expect long lines on Thanksgiving evening at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll booths.

How can your friends and family from out of town pay the toll?
Here are the toll payment options for the SR 520 Bridge, Tacoma Narrows Bridge and I-405 express toll lanes. Solo drivers using the SR 167 HOT lanes must have a Good To Go! pass.
  • Short-term accounts. Visitors can open a short-term account 14 days before their toll trip or up to three days after, with their credit or debit card and pay 50 cents less than Pay By Mail. Just open the account by registering your license plate. The account automatically closes after 14 days.
  • Pay By Mail. Don't have a Good To Go! account? No worries, we'll mail a bill to the vehicle's registered owner, even if you're from out of state.
  • You can add friends and family to your Good To Go! account. You can add family and friends' license plate numbers to your Good To Go! account and they will only pay the Good To Go! rate plus a 25-cent photo tolling fee.
For all the details for people who don't normally use tolled roadways in Washington, visit our Tolling Visitors and Infrequent Drivers Web page. Have a safe and happy holiday!

Good To Go! customer service hours
Our customer service center will be closed Thursday, Nov. 26, and Friday, Nov. 27. You can always manage your Good To Go! account online at Customer service will be open normal business hours Saturday, Nov. 28, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

#405ETL: Thank you for your feedback. We’re listening.

By Emily Pace

Since the express toll lanes opened, we’ve heard a lot of feedback from drivers about access and entrances, and we want you to know we’re listening and taking your feedback seriously. While certain changes can happen relatively quickly, others may take longer.

The first week of express toll lanes, we made changes to striping at the southbound access at NE 160th Street to give drivers more space to merge. We also noticed traffic was backing up on the direct access ramps to NE 128th Street from the express toll lane so we worked with our signals crew to change the signal timing.

Here are some other changes we’re looking at to help make your driving experience better.

Addressing demand in the southbound I-405 express toll lane in the AM
Drivers are telling us that a faster, more reliable trip is important to them and since opening we’ve seen more drivers using the express toll lanes. In some cases, there is greater demand than there is capacity in the lane.

This is true in the single express toll lane on southbound I-405 between SR 527 and NE 195th Street where we’ve seen speeds decrease in the last two weeks as more drivers are using the express toll lane. We’ve heard frustrations from drivers and after closely monitoring the situation, this week we started making changes to the toll rate algorithm to help manage traffic better.

Our engineers found the toll rate algorithm wasn’t responding quickly enough as traffic volumes increased in the morning commute. So this week, traffic engineers made some changes that caused the toll rates to increase a bit earlier in the morning. This showed some positive results. Traffic in the express toll lane moved faster and the maximum toll rates were the same or lower than before the change.

It’s still early and we are continuing to make additional adjustments to improve performance in this part of the system. When we launched SR 167 HOT lanes in 2008, we made several adjustments to the toll rate algorithm in the first few months of operation. Last year, we made additional adjustments to bring the toll rate down quicker to be more responsive to traffic after peak periods. Ultimately, our goal is the same with any changes we make which is to get people to their destination as quickly and safely as possible.

It’s important to remember, our goal is keep traffic moving at 45 mph at least 90 percent of the time during peak periods. There will be times when speeds drop below 45 mph due to heavy demand or other reasons that we can’t control (collisions, heavy rain or inclement weather or even perhaps deer running down the lane).

Adjustments in striping
We also will be making some changes to express toll lane striping at the following locations to assist in improved access and reduce driver confusion. This work is weather dependent and we will work with our contractor to complete the work over the next few months.
  • Entrance of express toll lanes northbound I-405 at NE 6th Street in Bellevue:
    • Even with signage in the corridor, we’re hearing some drivers still aren’t realizing they’re entering an express toll lane, so we’re going to add additional Express Toll Lane stenciling to the pavement before and at the beginning of the lane.
    • We’ll also extend the access point at that location to allow folks more time to decide if they want to be in the express toll lane or not.
  • End of express toll lanes northbound I-405 approaching I-5 in Lynnwood:
    • Drivers need more room to merge to I-5 from the express toll lanes, so we’re going to pull back the double white striping about 400 feet to give them some space.
  • End of express toll lanes southbound I-405 at NE 6th Street in Bellevue:
    • If you’re in the left-hand express toll lane traveling southbound I-405 approaching NE 6th Street, you need to merge to the right lane to continue south on I-405. We’re going to add an Exit Only pavement marking to help alert drivers.
As we look at these improvements, we’re also seeing lower use of the direct access ramps. We want to give a friendly reminder that these ramps are open to all drivers in the express toll lanes. Previously only HOV drivers could use the direct access ramps at NE 6th Street in Bellevue (to and from the north only!) and NE 128th Street in Kirkland. Now you can use them, whether or not you’re carpooling.

Continuing to monitor other access points
We’ll continue to monitor access points to identify challenging areas. For example, we are keeping a close eye on northbound near SR 520 and NE 195th Street and southbound near SR 527 and south of NE 195th Street up to NE 160th Street.  We’ve received a lot of comments on these blogs and social media and we’re using them as we look at adjustments.

Why are we waiting before making additional access point changes? We considered many factors when locating and designing the access points, including making sure there is adequate room to safely weave between the access point and interchange ramps and that the access point is long enough for safe movement in and out of the express toll lanes. We need to make changes incrementally to ensure we understand the effect of individual changes. If we make too many changes at once and one change didn’t work, it would be hard to determine which change created the challenge and therefore how to fix it.

We need to keep these factors in mind when we consider what adjustments we can make to the access points. In the meantime, we’re taking all of the feedback we hear into consideration and continuing to look for potential solutions.

Don’t be fooled by Mother Nature – make sure you’re prepared for winter weather even in a “mild” year

By Barbara LaBoe

We may be looking at another relatively mild winter, but that doesn’t mean our roads will be snow- and ice- free.

Mother Nature is unpredictable. (A case in point? The high winds, rain and snow of the past few days.) Even so-called El Nino winters can have sudden, severe storms, turning a trip across a pass – or even to the mall -- into a winter endurance event. The key to safe travel is to be prepared and keep yourself informed about conditions so you can make safe choices.

First, make sure you and your vehicle are ready. Bring along winter jackets, boots and blankets just in case. Have some extra water and snacks in case you end up waiting for a road to be cleared. And be sure you have basic winter emergency tools already packed in your vehicle. Not sure what to pack? Check out these handy shopping and packing guides.

Make sure you and your vehicle are prepared for snow and ice before it arrives.
Next, be aware of current weather conditions and the forecasts before you hit the road. We have several tools to help you plan your trips so you “know before you go” and can also adjust plans as needed:
  • Check our best times to travel tips for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
  • Visit our “Keeping you informed” website as well as our mobile app and online tools for traffic information and ferry schedules.
  • Follow our social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, including several region or pass specific accounts.
  • Sign up for email alerts about traffic, road conditions and other information. 
  • Pre-program your vehicle radio to 530 AM and 1610 AM for highway advisory radio alerts.
  • Check current pass reports for chain and traction requirements on our website or by calling 5-1-1.
  • Review our winter driving brochure.
  • Leave extra time for holiday and winter travel, drive safe and keep warm.
Also make sure you’re prepared for weather or crash delays. We try to schedule snow removal and avalanche work for the least busy time, but sometimes weather conditions call for immediate response. Keep your gas tank full and your vehicle in good working order.

We work with the Washington State Patrol to keep roads clear and safe – but
we need drivers’ help as well, including being prepared for winter weather.
Lastly, make sure to take it slow, especially in icy conditions. Often pass and road closures aren’t due to snow removal, but rather a vehicle that loses control and ends up causing backups for everyone. Give yourself extra travel time anytime inclement weather is forecast.

We work hard to keep roads clear, but we need everyone’s help to ensure a safe winter season.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I-405 Express Toll Lanes 6 Week Review - Part 2: Weekend Edition

by Ethan Bergerson

We’ve written several blog posts examining weekday traffic on I-405, but we’ve heard from a lot of drivers about increased traffic on the weekends, so we took a hard look at the numbers.

What drivers have been telling us is true - weekend congestion has increased since the I-405 express toll lanes opened. Based on data from October 3- November 8, travel times between Bellevue and Lynnwood are generally up to 5 minutes longer throughout the weekend, with up to a 10 minute increase northbound on Saturdays.

There are many factors that affect weekend traffic. There have been many lane closures during these six weekends due to construction, several big-impact sporting events, and of course the rainy weather never helps traffic. According to archives, there was three times as much rainfall in Bellevue over these weekends than over the same time period in 2014, 3.7 inches this year compared to 1.2 inches last year. On top of all that, we’re still seeing fewer drivers in the express toll lanes on weekends. All of this adds up to impacts for regular lane drivers.

Saturday slowdowns
Saturday I-405 travel times have increased by 5-10 minutes on average in the first six weeks since the express toll lanes opened. For this time period in 2014, Saturday average travel times ranged from 15-20 minutes for most of the day in both directions, with the peak late in the day. This year, we saw southbound trips approach 20 minutes much more frequently throughout the day. While the increase has been under 5 minutes for most weekends, a couple of particularly bad days brought up the averages for northbound travel up to 5-10 minutes longer than last year’s average high at times.

Sunday slumps
Sunday traffic has increased less dramatically, with 5 minute or less increase in average travel times in the afternoons. Last year, Sunday average travel times remained close to 15 minutes for most of the time. Since the express toll lanes opened, average Sunday travel times in both directions crept up by a few minutes, ranging from 15-20 minutes in the afternoons.

Fewer drivers in the express toll lanes
We’re also seeing fewer drivers using the express toll lanes compared to the HOV lanes last year. This is in contrast to weekdays, when the express toll lanes are carrying more vehicles than the HOV lanes previously did. This, combined with weekend storms, construction, and other big events, helps explain the travel times in the regular lanes.

We do have a few observations about why fewer weekend drivers are using the express toll lanes on the weekends:
  • We suspect that there are many drivers who carpool with their family or friends on the weekend, but may not have a Flex Pass yet. This makes sense as many weekend carpoolers may not carpool as often as daily commuters, or may not be frequent I-405 drivers at all.
  • Weekend drivers might just not be in as much of a rush. We say that the express toll lanes are there when you need them, and maybe people just don’t feel the same need to make it to brunch on time as they do to make it to daycare by 6pm.
  • Traffic isn’t bad enough to make the toll worth it. Weekend trips may be 5-10 minutes slower if you’re going the full length from Bellevue to Lynnwood, but they’re still a whole lot less congested than weekday rush hours. 
More time is needed
We’ve always said that it takes 6 months to a year for drivers to adjust to the changes, and this is especially true for weekend drivers who may travel or carpool on I-405 less frequently and have had fewer trips then daily commuters to adjust to the changes.
  • Carpools with 2 or more people can still drive in the express toll lanes for free with a Flex Pass all weekend long. 
  • is still giving away free Flex Passes through the end of 2015. Anyone who carpools on I-405 at least once in a typical week qualifies, including weekend trips with your family.
  • Every week, more and more drivers continue to get Flex Passes, so we expect more carpoolers to return to the express toll lanes each week.
  • Construction closures, events, and weather also have a big impact on weekend traffic, and it has certainly been a busy and wet month. We expect that traffic will calm down when these other factors diminish.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Part 1: I-405 Express Toll Lanes 6 Week Review: Weekday commutes in the regular lanes

By Ethan Bergerson

Since opening the I-405 express toll lanes, transit, vanpools and carpools have seen an immediate benefit, and non-carpools now have the option to pay a toll for a more reliable trip. Drivers in the express toll lanes saved an average of 14 minutes southbound during the AM peak for an average toll of $3.05, and saved an average of 12 minutes northbound during the PM peak for an average toll of $2.35.

While express toll lanes are doing what they’re designed to do, we’ve receive a lot of questions about how traffic in the regular lanes on I-405 is being impacted. Today we’re going to be diving into weekday commute times in the regular lanes, with an in-depth breakdown of the different sections of the commute. This will all be based on weekday commutes in the regular lanes from Sept 28 through November 6, 2015, and the corresponding weeks last year.

Overall, we’ve seen travel times remain the same or improve in the regular lanes in both directions for drivers going the full 17 miles between Bellevue and Lynnwood compared to this time last year. However, increased traffic in some areas has led to more congestion in some spots, especially north of Bothell in the evenings.

Weekday mornings: Southbound regular lanes

Southbound in the mornings, we’ve seen time savings as high as 20 minutes in late October, with less dramatic improvements of 5-10 minutes in November.

Full 17-mile trip from Lynnwood to Bellevue
Every one of the first six weeks since the I-405 express toll lanes opened has seen peak travel times 5 to 20 minutes faster than last year in the regular lanes. Southbound in the mornings, we’ve seen drivers saving as much as 20 minutes in late October, compared to the same commute this time last year. The first two weeks of November, drivers are experiencing a time savings of 5-10 minutes in the regular lanes.

Now let’s break it down even further to look to at the shorter trips and what we’re seeing.

Lynnwood to Bothell

Drivers in the regular lanes are still experiencing 5-15 minute shorter travel times from Lynnwood to Bothell compared to this time last year.  Weeks 2-5 have all seen peak travel times between 20-25 minutes, although this has crept back up slightly to 30 minutes in week 6. To put this in context, the average travel time for this commute this time last year was 35 minutes, with some days reaching up 50 minutes.

Bothell to Bellevue
South of Bothell, we’ve observed that the peak time has moved about half an hour later to 8:30 a.m. The result is that drivers travelling before 8 a.m. are experiencing trips up to 10 minutes shorter, with several weeks below the average for 2014. Travel times for drivers hitting the road around 8:30 a.m. are mixed from week to week, ranging from 5 minutes faster to a couple of minutes longer, with last week on par with the 2014 average. Overall the best weeks of 2015 are beating the best weeks of the previous year, and the worst weeks are still outperforming the worst of last year.

Weekday Evenings: Northbound regular lanes

Heading north in the evenings, commutes have been improving south of Bothell, but slowing in the north.

Full 17-mile trip from Bellevue to Lynnwood
Drivers making the entire 17 mile trip from Bellevue to Lynnwood in the regular lanes have been seeing modest improvements over the last month. Three of the last four weeks have had peak travel times as low as 35 minutes – 10 minutes below the 2014 average. The first week of November was on par with 2014, but the following week was the best performance we’ve seen so far.

Next, let’s dive deeper again into the shorter trips.

Bellevue to Bothell
Northbound commutes between Bellevue and Bothell in the regular lanes have been significantly improved since the express toll lanes opened. Peak travel times have varied from 5-15 minutes shorter every week. This past week was the best performance so far, with average travel times 15 minutes or less, well below the best days in 2014. Traffic is now free flowing for much of this commute, with the congestion now concentrated within 2 miles of the SR 520 interchange.

Bothell to Lynnwood
As we reported two weeks ago, traffic north of SR 522 is now consistently more congested than it was before. This is because the increased capacity from a new fifth lane south of SR 522, combined with the improvements at the SR 522 and I-405 interchange, are putting more pressure on the bottleneck where five lanes of traffic goes down to three lanes, as would be expected. Travel times between Bothell to Lynnwood have been between 5 and 10 minutes longer than the 2014 average every week since the express toll lanes opened.

Improving this section is a very high priority for our traffic engineers. We are looking very closely at what we can do in this section. The solution may lie in changing the access points, but it is difficult to predict the exact effects of more access and we need to be sure that our actions would create benefits before we make a change. Luckily, we built in flexibility for ourselves by using temporary striping, and if we see an opportunity to create a sure benefit through access changes then we will make it.

What does all of this tell us?
Traffic is shifting day to day and week to week, and we anticipate it will continue to do so. This reinforces that it will take traffic six months to a year to fully adjust and settle into a new normal. It’s still too soon to draw long-term conclusions. We’ll be monitoring closely to see how the express toll lanes operate and how drivers are adjusting.