I-405 tolling and reliable travel

There was a huge amount of backlash (and here) at the Washington State Traffic Commission meeting to set tolls on the I-405 HOV lanes.  Unfortunately it seems like most of the conversation skips over the actual purpose of these lanes: a reliable transportation option.

Before going into that, it seems quite reasonable to question whether or not additional lanes should even be built.  There’s a pretty strong case to be made that any increased road infrastructure simply feeds more sprawl.  The infrastructure to support this sprawl isn’t sustainable, so at the least we had better stop making things worse.  But I’ll ignore that today because the road is already being built.

Related, of course, to whether or not we should build something is its direct cost (ignoring the future maintenance and potential sprawl costs) and how we would pay for it.  We’ve long accepted that we’ll use general funding to support things for the public good.  It will come as no surprise that this blog supports public investment in pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure.  And while we’re not happy with the amounts and types of investments made for car travel, perhaps it is going too far to demand that tolls fully fund a project like this.  Or more importantly, we need to remember the other reasons for the new lanes and a toll.

If we built new lanes without tolling, as seemed to be popular opinion at the meeting, then essentially nothing would change.  We would just have an even larger clogged freeway.  And while it is suggested that doing anything other than this is a “war on cars” or a “money grab aimed at forcing drivers onto buses”, it is simply economic reality that we can not pay for the status quo.  The existing money grab by our vehicular infrastructure is strangling us.

Instead, this system is designed to provide reliable travel lanes.  For the purposes of that goal, it doesn’t matter what the tolls are as long as they get the job done.  If so, then everyone will have the option of bypassing some congestion at any time and level of congestion.  Is this “regressive and discriminatory”?  From a funding perspective, this is backwards.  People with higher incomes drive more frequently and will use HOT lanes in some personal situations where people with lower incomes will not.  Therefore the richer people are providing the funding.  This is different from other funding sources like a gas tax (who drives those new hybrid and electric vehicles?) or sales tax (a study from CA).  But does this mean that poorer people don’t benefit from these lanes (hence the term Lexus lanes)?  There will certainly be times when people in identical situations other than finances will choose differently, but it also turns out that unreliable transportation tends to affect poorer people more.  One example is in high daycare penalties for being late where the smaller toll is a useful choice to have.  There’s an interesting paragraph on this Public Policy Foundation page, though unfortunately the supporting links are dead.  See also this publication from The Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships.  (These both mirror many things I’ve read before but are what I was able to find while writing this.)  And really, if the real problem is the same toll amount across incomes, we could, with more complexity, incorporate income into the pricing, but I suspect that the opponents (the wealthier ones, that is) at these meetings would be loathe to absorb the necessary higher costs to keep the lane usage at free-flowing levels.

Even better, the use of tolls to keep these lanes moving means more reliable public transit.  That’s hardly regressive.  Bus-only infrastructure seems a long shot on the eastside (and really, with the low density, it will be difficult to support transit to this level), yet these lanes will provide much of the benefit.

Another round of complaints was about spillover traffic due to the tolls.  But the important thing is that 405 will both have tolled and untolled portions.  The general purpose lanes are the spillover for those who do not want to pay the tolls.  The general purpose lanes are not being changed.  The only negative effect on the general purpose lanes will be from the loss of some two-person carpools, which will often turn into two SOV trips.  However, this will be offset by the three-person and toll-paying customers.  And since the tolls will ensure that these lanes are free-flowing, they will be carrying more vehicles and people than if they were clogged, as is the case with the HOV lane today.

The easiest way for Kirkland to reduce spillover traffic is to stop designing its streets to carry spillover traffic.  Kenmore and SR 522 is trickier since it is intended for heavy traffic, but it was a mistake to think that “road improvements” were going to reduce congestion in the first place.

The important thing in any of these projects is that they don’t reduce congestion.  They do increase the number of people that we can move.

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