Thursday, February 29, 2024

Take a look under the hood: Understanding the I-405 express toll lanes and SR 167 HOT lanes

Changes are coming to the I-405 express toll lanes (ETLs) and SR 167 HOT lanes March 1, including new minimum and maximum toll rates and extended hours of operations. We know there are a lot of questions about the benefits of the express toll lanes and HOT lanes and how things will work with the new rates. In this blog, we share more about how the tolled lanes keep traffic moving, and where your toll money goes.

How does the system work?

Toll rates change based on real-time traffic conditions, and beginning March 1 the tolls will range from $1 to $15 for drivers with a Good To Go! pass.

The toll rates are adjusted every five minutes by an algorithm that assesses the level of congestion throughout the corridors and within each of the toll zones – one zone for SR 167 and three on I-405, corresponding with the three rates you see on each sign.

A toll rate sign above I-405 shows a different toll rate for each of the toll zones, demonstrating how drivers will pay a different toll depending on how far they travel in the toll lanes.
A toll rate sign on I-405 shows what toll you will pay depending on how far you want to travel in the toll lanes. In this case for someone who plans to exit the lanes at the end of the first toll zone – Northeast 128th Street they would pay $6.75. For people continuing on through the second toll zone – which ends at Northeast 85th Street, or the third – which ends at Northeast 6th Street –
they would pay $8 for their trip.

As congestion increases on the roadway, the toll rates increase to help control the amount of vehicles entering the tolled lanes. The goal is to prioritize moving more people through the corridor, particularly those traveling toll-free by carpooling and using transit, and for drivers who choose to pay a toll when they need a reliable trip the most.

How do the express toll lanes actually help move traffic?

One way to measure the effectiveness of the express toll lanes is to compare them to similar corridors without express toll lanes. In November 2023, we looked at daily vehicle volumes on northbound I-5 at Northeast 145th street, where the highway features four general purpose lanes and one HOV lane. On this segment of I-5, daily volumes averaged 87,000 vehicles. During that same period, daily volumes on northbound I-405 just north of Northeast 85th Street —where the highway contains three general purpose lanes and two tolled lanes — averaged 108,000 vehicles.

A pair of charts comparing the traffic throughput of northbound I-5 at Northeast 145th Street and northbound I-405 at Northeast 85th Street. On I-5, on average 4,750 vehicles passed through the corridor during the peak travel period in the general purpose lanes and 1,300 passed through the corridor in the HOV lane. Meanwhile, under the same conditions on average 4,850 vehicles passed through I-405 in the general purpose lanes and 3,300 people passed through the corridor in the express toll lanes. It shows that there was significantly more throughput on I-405 which makes use of the express toll lanes as a toll to manage congestion.
The charts show that despite having a matching number of lanes and general congestion level, I-405 – which uses tolls to help manage congestion – moved considerably more vehicles through
the corridor in the same peak travel period.

Having at least one lane moving more efficiently acts as a relief valve of sorts and allows more vehicles to get through the corridor. On average, 21,000 more vehicles were able to get through the I-405 corridor in similar traffic congestion and road conditions compared to I-5 in November 2023 because we were able to use tolls to help manage congestion and keep lanes on the roadway moving.

Why did you build express toll lanes and not more general purpose lanes?

The I-405 corridor, much like the rest of western Washington, continues to see population growth. With more people using the corridor, the demand for a reliable trip continues to grow as well.

We know we can’t build our way out of congestion; there are funding limitations, a lack of physical space needed to build new capacity, and environmental considerations. That means we need to get more out of what we already have.

A two-panel cartoon with the top panel showing a person sitting alone in a car surrounded by other solo drivers in a crowded two lane road stating “can’t wait for the road to be widened.” The bottom panel shows that same person stating “Finally” while sitting in a three-lane road that is just as congested as it was before.
This cartoon demonstrates what we’ve historically seen, that adding lanes to a roadway doesn’t relieve congestion, instead people who previously found alternate methods like carpooling, transit
or traveling in off-peak hours fill the newly added capacity.

We also know that the express toll lanes move more people through the corridor more efficiently than the old layout of general purpose lanes and one HOV lane. Last year, drivers who used the SR 167 HOT lanes saved an average of 7 minutes while traveling southbound and 6 minutes while traveling northbound when compared to general purpose lanes in fiscal year 2023. The average speeds in the HOT lanes were 15 mph faster northbound, and 12 mph southbound. There were similar benefits on I-405 in the same year with drivers who used the I-405 express toll lanes saving an average of 8 minutes while traveling northbound and 6 minutes while headed southbound when compared to the general purpose lanes. The average speeds in the express toll lanes ranged between 12 and 25 mph faster in the northbound direction and 9 to 15 mph faster southbound than their general purpose counterparts, with the greater average speeds in the dual-lane section of the road between Bellevue and Bothell.  

Transit is also important in providing a choice and moving more people through the corridor efficiently. Several transit routes take advantage of the express toll lanes and HOT lanes to bypass congestion and provide a more reliable trip to their riders – who also avoid the toll and sitting in traffic. Transit riders will see future advantages to their trips as the ongoing I-405/167 corridor program includes projects that benefit transit and allows for additional high-capacity bus routes. The projects are possible because the tolled lanes help manage congestion and allow the transit routes to move people more efficiently and reliably through the corridors.  

The express toll lanes give drivers a choice they didn’t have before, so that people have a way out of congestion when they really need it. They also generate revenue to be reinvested back into the corridor for projects to help address pain points that contribute to congestion.

How does increasing the maximum toll rate actually help manage traffic?

While we don’t know how often people will choose to use the lanes when the toll rate reaches the new maximum, we do know that current rates are reaching their cap during peak periods more frequently, and when that happens speeds and overall performance decreases. As traffic volumes continue to increase, the demand for a more reliable trip will grow.

With a higher maximum rate, we have more room to provide a reliable trip when drivers need it the most. In other words, drivers will have even more of a choice to make when considering whether to use the express toll lanes or HOT lanes. If a driver thinks the rate is too high, they’ll stay in the general purpose lanes, freeing up capacity in the tolled lanes for transit, carpools, and drivers who really need the reliable trip. Drivers who choose to pay the toll and use the express toll lanes or HOT lanes will in turn free up space in the general purpose lanes and experience more value for their money in the form of a quicker trip.

While everyone decides for themselves when paying a toll is worth it in the I-405 express toll lanes and SR 167 HOT lanes, we know that not everyone will opt to pay the higher toll rate and some drivers will adjust their travel times, and some may adjust the way they commute (by joining a carpool or using public transportation) – that helps keep vehicles out of the tolled lane as well.

What does my toll actually pay for?

Toll revenue is used to cover the costs of operating and maintaining a safe facility and any funds remaining after covering these expenses are reinvested back into the I-405 and SR 167 corridor.

A doughnut chart showing the breakdown of how toll revenue was used in fiscal year 2023. Of the $25.8 million in total toll revenue, $0.5 Million (2 percent) went to facility maintenance, $8.9 million (35 precent) was spent on operations and $16.2 million (63 percent) remained to be reinvested back into the corridor for capital improvements.
This chart from the Toll Division’s Annual Report for fiscal year 2023 indicates that approximately 40 percent of the toll revenue collected for trips in the I-405 express toll lanes and SR 167 HOT lanes is used to run the program, while more than 60 percent remains to be reinvested into improvement projects
throughout the corridor.

Expenses that fall under the description of operations and maintenance include printing and mailing bills, credit card fees, maintaining roadside tolling equipment like cameras and pass readers, and administrative costs of overseeing customer service operations, planning system improvements and calibrating the systems that monitor road congestion and adjust the dynamic toll rates.

WSDOT does contract out for certain services like the Good To Go! back office system, operating tolling equipment in the lanes, and customer service centers, and these contracts are awarded based on a competitive procurement process. The contracts also require the vendors to have local employees and operations to provide additional benefits to Washingtonians. Currently our vendors employ over 100 people in Washington to support the Good To Go! program.

Our financial statements and other revenue details are all readily available online so you can see the exact break down of how toll revenue is used.

I sometimes see people weaving in and out of the lanes. Can’t you build barriers?

It’s important to note that enforcement of drivers trying to evade tolls is an industry-wide problem. We work with our partners at Washington State Patrol on enforcement, and use double white lines — which are illegal to cross — to separate the express toll lanes and general purpose lanes. If you notice a location or time of day when you see violations more frequently, you can share that information with WSP.

We can’t use barriers to separate the express toll lanes for a few reasons:

  • They’re expensive to build and maintain, and in some areas we don’t have the physical space.
  • They can pose a safety hazard by preventing first-responders from accessing collisions that occur in the express toll lanes.
  • When a collision occurs in the general purpose lanes, we wouldn’t be able to route vehicles into the express toll lanes to keep traffic moving.

If you still have questions or concerns, reach out to us on social media. We’re always happy to help answer questions.

And remember, if you do opt to pay a toll to use the I-405 express toll lanes and SR 167 HOT Lanes you can save money by opening a Good To Go! account – and you have the option of toll-free travel as a carpool if you use a Flex Pass and have the appropriate number of people.

You can find out more about accounts at passes at our website

Friday, February 23, 2024

Navigating rough roads between highway projects: Rough Roads signs coming to I-5 in Clark County

By Celeste Dimichina & Kelly Hanahan

Maintaining roads and ensuring travelers safety is our top priority. But the reality is, there’s a lot of work to do.

Every day, our maintenance crews work to keep the roads open and safe for every user. When they see potholes, they work to fill them. When they see tree branches hanging over the roadway or blocking road signs, they trim them. This is their mission: building and maintaining systems to keep people and goods moving throughout our state every day. Sometimes that means making temporary repairs until we have funding for the needed long-term projects like rebuilding roadways or replacing concrete panels.

If you see Rough Road signs along your favorite highway, this is what’s happening. These signs warn people that traveling the roadway ahead needs a little more care until we can address failing pavement.

Rough Roads in Southwest Washington

If you often travel Interstate 5 and 205 in Clark County, you already know what we are talking about. Failing concrete panels that are sunken or cracked make a very bumpy commute. The section of southbound I-5 between Ridgefield and I-5/I-205 split is made up of 8,400 concrete panels. Hundreds of which have cracked, settled and ultimately must be replaced. These panels were originally installed 50-70 years ago and are beyond repair. Additional factors like extreme weather (ice storms!) and increased traffic volumes only worsen the roadways already long overdue for replacement.

What’s happening?

Travelers heading south on I-5, between Ridgefield and the I-5/I-205 junction in Salmon Creek will soon see a series of Rough Road warning signs.

These signs will be strategically placed just after on-ramps and just before rough patches of roadway, giving people advanced warning of road conditions ahead. Travelers will also notice signs that advise speed limit reduction from 70 mph to 60 mph and from 60 mph to 50 mph.

The main goal of these signs is to encourage travelers to take extra care until we make long-term road repairs. By giving advanced warning, drivers can adjust their speeds.

Are these roads going to be fixed?

Yes! As funding has become available, we have focused on addressing the “worst of the worst” panels first. We will continue to work on it until we’ve rehabilitated the entire section of roadway, but that will take several years. In 2017, we identified six projects to address in this stretch of interstate between the I-5/I-205 split and Woodland. Due to budget constraints, many of these projects have been delayed. We don’t determine our ultimate budget and are continuing to work with state leaders on the best way to pay for these repairs and others across our state.

Upcoming projects

Beginning in summer 2024 we’ll start a project estimated at around $2 million. This project will replace about 25-30 of the most damaged concrete panels on southbound I-5 between Ridgefield and the I-5/I-205 split.

In 2025, we’ll tackle another project valued at approximately $12 million. This one will focus on fixing and smoothing out all panels on a section of southbound I-5 from 179th Street to the I-5/I-205 split.

If funding is available, we’ll undertake an approximately $25 million project in 2025-2026 to fix and smooth out all panels on southbound I-5 between Ridgefield to 179th Street. To give you an idea of the scale, this project will use more than 100,000 tons of asphalt. One truck carries 15 tons. That adds up to more than 6,600 trucks full of asphalt for this one project.

Recent projects

While there is more work to do, we have made other recent improvements.

Between 2004-2020, we repaired and resurfaced failing concrete panels in Clark County between Ridgefield and the I-5/I-205 split.

In 2021, a $7.6 million project fixed and smoothed out a section of panels on southbound I-5 between North Fork Lewis River and East Fork Lewis River just south of Woodland.

Between 2022-2023, we completed a nearly $9 million project to replace 100 of the most damaged panels on southbound I-5 between 179th Street and the I-5/I-205 split while also rehabilitating bridge joints along I-205.

Rough roads can reduce fuel efficiency, which means you spend more on fuel. They can also affect tire wear and vehicle repair costs. Slower speeds required on deteriorated roadways also means lost time for commuters and freight transporters. We have a backlog of work waiting on funding for preservation projects.

We have a lot of work ahead of us to improve the condition of this stretch of highway. Thank you for your patience while we work on repairing or replacing sections of this road for smoother travel.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Look up! Not a bird, not a plane – it’s a HAWK signal – a hero in crosswalk safety!

By Sarah Hannon-Nein

In a nod to the winged heroes of our imagination, akin to Batman's iconic bat signal piercing the night sky, a unique hero has surfaced.

The HAWK signal is designed to increase safety at crosswalks by controlling traffic flow
and providing clear visual signals for both drivers and pedestrians.

Armed with flashing lights and the authority to direct traffic, Washington State Department of Transportation with their contractor, Thompson Bros. Excavating, proudly unveils the successful installation of a HAWK Signal on State Route 500 (also known as Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard), at Northeast 166th Avenue.

Contractor crews successfully installed a HAWK (High intensity Activated crossWalK)
pedestrian signal across SR 500 at Northeast 166th Avenue. 

What is a HAWK signal?

A HAWK (High intensity Activated crossWalK) signal is an effective visual system designed to grab drivers’ attention and make it safer for people to cross the road on foot or on wheels. It also makes traffic flow smoother for drivers. Unlike traditional traffic signals, a HAWK signal is activated and operates only when a pedestrian pushes the crossing button. When there are no pedestrians, vehicles move without interruption.

When a person presses the button on the HAWK signal, it will first turn yellow, then red, and finally to flashing red. Drivers should treat these lights just like any other traffic signal. Yellow means prepare to stop, red means stop. When the signal is flashing red, drivers can drive through the crossing area only if it is completely safe to do so without posing any risk to pedestrians.

A pedestrian push button allows pedestrians to activate the signal and provides reassurance they will receive a crossing indication soon.

Pedestrians can activate the HAWK signal by pushing the button at either end of the crossing. The lights on the HAWK signal will indicate when it is safe to cross. Even with the HAWK signal, it is still important for pedestrians to stay focused and be cautious of potential conflicts with vehicles. Drivers making right or left turns across the crosswalk might not always notice pedestrians.

As part of the project, our crews have also constructed a new shared-use path and a marked crossing. This path and crossing make it safer for pedestrians traveling to Pioneer Elementary School and Frontier Middle School from the neighborhoods south of SR 500. Additionally, crews have completed permanent roadway striping to give drivers visible and reflective lane guidance. The new striping means the crossing will be safer for drivers and pedestrians, especially during nighttime driving.

Crews constructed a marked crossing as part of the project, making pedestrian access safer from the neighborhoods south of SR 500 to Pioneer Elementary School and Frontier Middle School on the
north side of the highway.

Thanks to these improvements, funded by the Safe Routes to Schools Program, students walking, biking or using mobility devices to travel to school in the Orchards neighborhood now have a safer path beneath their feet and wheels.

Keep your eyes on the horizon, as the next HAWK signal is scheduled to appear along SR 503/Northeast 117th Avenue, near Prairie High School, later this year.

As Like the iconic “bat signal,” the HAWK signal alerts drivers to pedestrians entering the road. When this signal is activated, slow down and be ready to stop at the crosswalk. Just as Batman protects Gotham, drivers can be heroes too by doing their part to ensure everyone makes it home safely at the end of the day.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Thinking globally, acting locally: South Korean delegation visits us

By Sean Quinn

While we may be an ocean apart, Washington state and South Korea have a lot more in common than you may think. We both have many miles of bike lanes, pedestrian trails, tunneled highways, toll roads, and yes, even roundabouts. We also both have transportation agencies whose goal is to provide safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation options to all. In an effort to foster international collaboration and share best practices in transportation management, we were honored when a delegation from South Korea reached out and asked us to host transportation officials at our Transportation Management Center (TMC) in Shoreline Monday, Jan. 8.

A delegation of 13 South Korean officials from their Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and the Korea Expressway Corporation visited our Transportation Management Center in
Shoreline earlier this year.

In December 2023, a senior manager from the Korea Expressway Corporation, a government-run corporation responsible for South Korea’s toll roads and expressways, contacted us to learn more about the work we do. The corporation, along with the country’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport wanted to learn more about our highways and tunnels to help improve their own underground highway system, all while creating a stronger relationship with an international partner. We said yes to that opportunity, and the arrangements were made.

Tour day

On Monday, Jan. 8, 13 South Korean delegates arrived in Seattle in the afternoon and drove to Shoreline to tour one of our TMCs. Our TMCs are the nerve centers of our highway monitoring and operations, staffed with engineers, technicians, Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) teams, and additional highway management personnel. They’re staffed 24/7, 365 days a year, with people monitoring traffic, directing and supporting incident response, and checking tunnel and tolling operations, to keep our roads clear and traffic flowing. They’re a critical component of coordinated responses to emergencies anywhere in the state.

ITS Operations Engineer David Baker and SR 99 Tunnel ITS Lead Lauren Asher show delegates from the South Korea Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and Korea Expressway Corporation how tunnel operations are handled remotely from the TMC Control Room.

During the tour, the delegates watched a presentation from our TMC and tolling staff, learning more about our road systems, how we monitor the highways in our region and how we work to keep traffic flowing smoothly and safely. Our tolling team also talked about how our electronic tolling system works.

TMC Manager Sayuri Koyamatsu (picture to the left) and Toll Division Lane Systems Operations Engineer James Carothers (right) give presentations to the Korean delegation about daily operations from inside the TMC and Emergency Operations Center. The presentations slides
were translated into Korean.

The delegation next joined staff inside the TMC’s Control Room, the heart and soul of the facility. They gazed in awe at the hundreds of live traffic cameras shown on displays above them and the many workstations we have. Each workstation serves an important purpose, such as public information (where Public Information Officers sit); our radio operator, who handles communications to our crews in the field; and our tunnels operators, who make sure everything is running smoothly in our tunnels, such as the State Route 99 Tunnel, Interstate 5 under the Seattle Convention Center and the I-90 Mount Baker Tunnel and Mercer Island Lid.

ITS Operations Engineer David Baker and SR 99 Tunnel ITS Lead Lauren Asher answer
questions about the SR 99 tunnel from the Korean delegation

The Korean delegation had many questions for our staff from the region’s TMC, toll division and tunnel maintenance team. They asked about the challenges of the day-to-day operation of the SR 99 tunnel, including fire-mitigation measures and groundwater seepage challenges inside of it. They also asked about our traffic management and control strategies, such as our use of ramp meters and digital signage and how tolling collection is done at each end of the tunnel.

Toll Division Lane Systems Operations Manager Michael Severance exchanges gifts with Director General Kim Baesung from South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport

Looking ahead

A key objective of the tour was to facilitate a meaningful exchange of knowledge and expertise between transportation officials from the two nations, and that was certainly met. The cultural exchange between the delegation and our staff fostered a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect. Diplomatic initiatives and delegation visits like this go beyond the immediate goal of knowledge exchange and lay the foundation for long-term partnerships and collaborations.