Wednesday, November 16, 2016

#405ETL provides choice as more drivers move to the region

By Ethan Bergerson

In the last year, we’ve seen big changes not only on I-405 with express toll lanes, but also the Puget Sound region as whole with more people living and working in the communities surrounding the I-405 corridor.

The Puget Sound region is experiencing tremendous growth and a booming economy, in the last year the region experienced the biggest population gain this century and the highest growth rate in the past 20 years, and job growth is accelerating as well. Since 2000, when planning for the I-405 corridor was underway, population has increased a total of 23 percent and employment by 15 percent in King and Snohomish counties.

As more people live and work here, more drivers are on the roads. While the express toll lanes have shown to be an effective tool to provide a more reliable trip, the tremendous growth in the region doesn’t change the fact that there is still limited capacity on our already congested highways.

In September we provided a brief update based on trends over nine months. Now that we’ve got a full year data crunched, let’s take a deep dive into what the numbers are showing us.

Give drivers a choice
People are really showing us just how much they value the choice for a faster trip when they need it. Over the first year, people chose to pay a toll 10.1 million times plus another 4.4 million free trips in the express toll lanes for carpoolers and motorcycles. As new people move to the region, we continue to see new commuters in the express toll lanes each month. Even after one year, 50,000 new vehicles used the express toll lanes for the first time in September.

Provide a faster and more predictable trip
Not only are drivers in the express toll lanes saving an average of 13 minutes over the general purpose lanes, we’re also seeing benefits for general purpose lane drivers in most sections of the I-405 corridor including shorter travel times.

The exception is trips on northbound I-405, which travel between SR 522 and I-5, where capacity is limited as five lanes convert to three creating a bottleneck. We’re already moving forward with the first major improvement funded by tolling revenue, a new northbound peak-use lane from SR 527 to I-5 that will help reduce congestion in this area.

Curious on the specifics of how your commute has changed? We looked at a lot of different trips, over different time periods, to see how travel times have been affected.

Commuters traveling southbound in the morning:
Commuters traveling northbound in the evening:
In addition to faster speeds, we’re moving more vehicles through the corridor in the peak period. We’re moving 300-700 more vehicles per hour, per lane in the two express toll lanes compared to the previous HOV lane. Depending on the location, we’re moving up to 200-300 more vehicles per hour in the single express toll lane where no capacity was added compared to the previous HOV lane.

We’ve also improved reliability for the express toll lane. When looking at the full corridor trip, the previous HOV lanes moved vehicles at 45 mph or faster 60 percent of the time. When averaged across both directions for the last six months, express toll lanes have improved the percentage of time speeds are meeting 45 mph by 25 percent compared to the HOV lane in 2015.

In the last six months the express toll lanes have maintained speeds of 45 mph 85 percent of the time during peak periods, below the goal of 90 percent. This is due to two factors:
  1. Limited capacity. Capacity was not changed between Bothell and Lynnwood on I-405. The slower speeds in the single express toll lane have influenced whether the express toll lanes meet the 45 mph metric. 
  2. Increasing demand. Significant regional growth has led to more drivers choosing to use the express toll lanes, therefore putting more strain on the single lane section. Drivers also made 6,000 more weekday peak period trips in the express toll lanes in September 2016 compared to October 2015.
To improve performance, WSDOT is looking at a variety of operational improvements to address the capacity constraints on I-405 between Bothell and Lynnwood, including the northbound peak use shoulder.

Funding future improvements
So, it’s hard to talk about the benefits of the express toll lanes this year without mentioning the revenue. We try to publish financial statements for all toll roads and bridges every three months to help you understand exactly where your toll dollar goes. If you want a refresher on how to read the financial statements, check out Dollars and sense: Breaking down the first I-405 express toll lanes financial report.

Here are the top takeaways from the first year of operations from September 2015 to September 2016:
  • $21.6 million in gross revenue: That’s how much money was raised from people making a choice to pay a toll for a faster trip in the express toll lanes. Of the total revenue, $17.5 million was from toll revenue and the rest from other revenues such as Good To Go! Pass sales. People have gained more control over their commute, and this revenue is an added bonus because once expenses are covered, the money will be reinvested back into the corridor. 
Following the money: How your toll dollars are being spent.
Most of your toll money is being invested right back into improvements for I-405 drivers, but where does the rest of it go? You might have heard the myths and rumors that 70 percent goes to a company in Texas, but this is undeniably inaccurate. Here’s the breakdown of our recent operating costs:

Over the past six months, 40 percent of the money raised on I-405 went towards toll collection. You might notice that the chart above is just for the last six months, not for the full year. This is what we expect operations costs to continue to look like in the future because our operations and maintenance costs were lower when the express toll lanes first opened.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown:
  • The roadway toll system operations and maintenance team received 5 percent of this revenue. This service is provided by a vendor from Rockville, Maryland. They have a core staff of six in Puget Sound. Their compensation is also not affected by traffic or toll rate levels.  
  • State operations costs amounted to 11 percent of the revenue. This includes our staff costs, consulting support, and staff related costs such as rent, phones and computers, data collection tools, reporting on performance, software and office supplies.  
  • Customer service and billing operations received 9 percent of the revenue in these statements. Both services are provided by a vendor from Richardson, Texas. They employ more than 120 people right here in the Puget Sound region.  This vendor gets the same amount per transaction no matter what the toll rate is or how much congestion there is.
  • 15 percent of this revenue went to miscellaneous operating costs including enforcement by Washington State Patrol, Good To Go! pass equipment and distribution, toll bill printing, postage, and civil penalty adjudication costs.


Vince R said...

I remember reading the law and there are a few things I have questions about:

1. The monies collected, as the law was written, could only be used to manage/maintain the ETL system.
2. Are we budgeting our expenses on a program that is not yet final?
3. How is it you can still claim success when even the state governor could see on a single visit, ETL did not fix, but rather made worse the traffic on 405?

The concept that this is a choice is totally fabricated. The statistics that have been posted, in my opinion, boarder on fraud being committed to the public and to our elected officials.

Now I see questionable use and the creation of budgets on a project that is technically not out of its trial stage. Clearly WSDOT doesn't care about parliamentary procedure in regards to WA laws.

I think more people need to be replaced until either the traffic actually gets better or realistic information about this project is published. said...

Ethan, I appreciate your efforts to publish what data you are given. I would appreciate it more if this were an unbiased, fact-driven blog, intending to self-evaluate rather than a propaganda outlet to try to build support for WSDOT's motives. The reality is that we will never get facts in an article here that might indicate any of the many problems with the #405ETL. Therefore it is left up to the citizens to provide this information for you.

1. Yes, we are growing. And we have a rural capacity highway in the middle of a metropolitan area. Let's start by building a solid transportation base with a basic metropolitan highway of 5 lanes. Nothing magic or fancy here, just the fundamentals first and what was defined in the I-405 Master Plan.

2. For all but 7% of the people that use the ETL every day (based on your own data in the WSDOT 1 yr report to WSTC yesterday)(it is actually less than that because that includes all vehicles: buses, vanpools, and paying drivers), it is not a choice. Everyone pays. EVERYONE PAYS. either with their time or with their money. Even if you never drive 405, you pay because deliveries are now adding in the costs to deliveries on the Eastside.

3. Using the tolls does not mean we want the tolls. It just means we don't have an acceptable alternative. But many people are taking diversion routes on surface streets to avoid I-405. This is especially true for the trucking industry. They are not permitted to use the ETL, so they are diverting to highway 2, hwy 9, and hwy 203. These roads are not designed to handle the weight of these big rigs and will soon fail.

4. NOT MORE PREDICTABLE. They are even more unpredictable as is proven by the fluctuation in toll prices. Now they are not only unpredictable in time, they have a new variable: price. Drivers don't know what the price will be to use the toll lanes in addition to not knowing if they will be faster or slower than the GPL.

5. Do NOT keep claiming the problem is with a bottleneck where it drops from 5 lanes to 3. That is not a problem solved by installing tolls. That is due to a lack of capacity. Also, the same problem exists southbound in the morning. There is no bottleneck. The problem is simply and only a matter of capacity. TOLLS DO NOT REDUCE CONGESTION

Stop calling it a choice. You are stealing time from people in the general purpose lanes and selling it to people in the Express Toll Lanes. That is not a choice. That is ransom.

Friend said...

Certainly don't treat toll as an efficient way to generate tax revenue if 40% of the revenue is eaten up by the costs to collect the revenue. Gas tax overhead is only like 2% of the revenue collected. Yet WS-DOT loves tolling as a way to generate revenue. How about we just increase the gas tax instead of more tolling?

Jeff Lykken said...

The extortion toll lanes have been the biggest ripoff of the public in recent memory. They have made congestion much much worse and everyone knows this. I think it is awful that the Texas company where a majority of the tolls go discourages adding general purpose lanes, that way the congestion continues and the toll revenue continues to come in, Every one is tired of listing to the same propaganda and lies. We the tax paying public would all be better off if the extortion toll lanes were suspended ASAP! The new and improved configuration would be 4 general purpose lanes and 1 HOV lane. The extortion toll lanes are coming down on n 2017!!

Wsdot Wsdot said...

Friend, Washington state drivers already pay one of the highest gas taxes in the nation. Tolls are a user fee and, per the Federal Highway Administration's website, "there is a consensus among economists that congestion pricing represents the single most viable and sustainable approach to reducing traffic congestion."

Daniel Bridenbecker said...

I have been commuting between 160th and downtown Bellevue for about two years now. I occasionally take the toll lanes, but typically sit in traffic. When I do use the toll lanes, I’m usually late for something and really appreciate the option for a dependable commute time.

My anecdotal observation is that this GP commute hasn’t changed much but there is the toll lane option. The place that has gotten worse is north of 522. The only thing that has really changed on this section is the carpool requirement changing from two people to three. My guess is that people that used to go to work as a two person carpool can’t get a third and have reverted to just driving by themselves. The toll lane charges help back my observation. It is typically 75 cents from Bellevue to 522 and $5 from 522 to I-5. It would be a super cheap experiment to reduce the carpool requirement for a few months and see if it improved traffic.

The biggest bottleneck for traffic north of Bellevue is 522 & 405. The hill and the river make this a challenging problem. There are few ways to get around this intersection and heaven forbid we have an earthquake. I hope that the tolls we are collecting are going to a major upgrade to this intersection. said...

@Daniel, at the rate they are collecting tolls, it will take about 50 years to pay for adding 1 lane in each direction from SR522 to I-5. Lots of pain, but no gain.

WSDOT said...

Vince –
1) According to RCW 47.56.884, all toll revenue and interest earnings in the I-405 account go toward paying ongoing operating and maintenance costs. Any revenue generated beyond operating costs will go in a dedicated account for I-405 and will be reinvested in the corridor. For more questions on that, please visit our project site page:
2) The Legislature gave WSDOT two years after launch to achieve performance metrics in the express toll lanes (RCW 47.56.880). The Legislature will determine what happens with express toll lanes after two years of operation.
3) As you can see from links in the blog, we’re already seeing several improvements in travel times in the corridor, with one exception on trips northbound between SR 522 and I-5 where capacity is limited. We are already moving forward with the first major improvement funded by toll revenue to add a northbound peak-use lane in that section to help with the bottleneck. More information on that can be found here.

Jeff Lykken said...

WSDOT continues on with there lies and propaganda. The extortion toll lanes have made everyone's commute much much worse and everyone knows this. You have a responsibility to the public to deliver what you promised and you continue to fail. First of all we were promised 2 additional general purpose lanes in the 2001 master plan. If you remember this plan was a great plan that involved the public and representatives and would have made a huge difference. Instead we get this bogus extortion toll lanes that was forced onto the tax paying public for a lane that we already paid for. What a joke. To make matters worse, car pooling is down and the toll hovers around $10 on any given day. The extortion toll lanes are failing to maintain the 45mph speed limit as well. I wonder what new lies and propaganda WSDOT will say to support a facility that is one of the biggest mistake in transportation history! You owe a responsibility to the public to do what is right and suspended the extortion toll lanes ASAP! I think it is awful that the Texas company where a majority of of the tolls go discourages adding general purpose lanes, that way the congestion continues and the toll revenue comes in. The tax paying public has had enough of this and we let the extortion tolls congestion we will guarantee that I405 will be congested for decades!! The reason is in order to pay for the bonds, congestion must continue. You should be ashamed of yourself for this betrayal and ripoff of the public. It's time to do what is right and listen to the public that you have a responsibility to and suspend the extortion toll lanes once and for all! Real Lanes for Real People!

WSDOT said...

Daniel – Thanks for sharing your observations. We appreciate the feedback! We also recognize the bottleneck that exists in the north end of the corridor between SR 522 and I-5, and we have addressed that in this blog. Work is already underway to ease the congestion in the north end by adding a peak-use shoulder by next summer, and you can find more information about that project here. Additionally, reducing the carpool requirement would not help the congestion, but rather would add to it. As more drivers choose to use the express toll lanes, toll rates will increase and speeds will slow. We hope that the peak-use shoulder will address the congestion concerns until future improvements can be implemented.

Jeff Lykken said...

Mark Harmsworth has drafted a bill to get rid of the extortion toll lanes once and for all. It is nice to know that there are good representatives out there doing the right thing and listening to the public. This is the total opposite of Judy Clibborn who cares more about the Texas company where a majority of the tolls go rather than the constituents that she is supposed to represent. The people have spoken and we do not want a system that creates congestion rather than eliminating it. It is awful that the Texas company discourages general purpose lanes, that way the congestion continues and the toll revenue comes in. How can any representative from any party support such a flawed system and say they are representing the will of the people. We will win this fight and the tolls are coming down in 2017.

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