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Stretch of Highway 167 Selected for Study of Toll “HOT” Lanes

Original article
The HOV lanes on Highway 167 between Renton and Auburn could become the region’s first “HOT” lanes – open not just to transit and car pools but also to solo drivers willing to pay a toll.

The state Department of Transportation plans to spend the next few months studying the idea. A recommendation could come before the end of the year.

Converting the freeway’s high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes to high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes between Interstate 405 in Renton and 15th Street Northwest in Auburn would require the state Transportation Commission’s approval. State laws and federal regulations that prohibit tolls on existing highways built with federal help would need to be amended or waived.

And the department would need to find money to pay for the project.

But if the study’s results are encouraging and those obstacles are overcome, the HOT lanes could be operating by late next year, said Mike Cummings, the department’s corridor-planning manager.

Car pools and buses on Highway 167 would continue to use the lanes at no charge.

Cummings said 167 was selected over other highways for study and possible conversion because, while peak-period congestion in the freeway’s general-purpose lanes is bad, the HOV lanes have plenty of unused capacity.

“The thing we’re comfortable with is, we’re not taking something away,” he said. “We’re trying to make everyone’s commute easier.”

Solo drivers in the HOT lanes would enjoy a faster trip. Transit and car-pool commuters presumably wouldn’t suffer.

Even solo drivers unwilling to pay a toll might benefit, Cummings said, because the HOT lanes could take some traffic out of the general-purpose lanes.

Several other states, most notably California, have experimented with HOT lanes. One of the best-known projects is in San Diego, where a local-government consortium converted an eight-mile, reversible HOV lane on Interstate 15 into a HOT lane in 1996.

Cummings said Highway 167 HOT lanes probably would include several features of the I-15 project, including:

– Tolls without cash or collection booths. Customers would set up prepaid accounts and get small, plastic, personalized radio transponders to mount on their windshields. Tolls would be deducted automatically when cars drive under antennas on gantries spanning the lanes.

– “Congestion pricing.” Tolls would rise as traffic in general-purpose lanes gets worse, in part to keep the HOT lanes flowing freely.

HOT lanes in other states have just one entry and one exit. But Cummings said HOT lanes on Highway 167 may include access to and from the general-purpose lanes at each interchange along the nine-mile route.

The HOT lanes would be separated from other lanes by a four-foot-wide buffer studded with pylons that could be spaced more widely near interchanges so cars can weave back and forth, he said.

It’s too soon to say how high tolls might be, Cummings said, or what conversion might cost. The department hasn’t decided to put HOT lanes on Highway 167, he emphasized, only to analyze the possibility.

In California, critics deride the HOT lanes as “Lexus lanes” – congestion relief for the rich. An independent study of the I-15 project revealed HOT-lane users are wealthier on average than motorists in the general-purpose lanes.

But the same study found that I-15 commuters of all income levels support the toll project and consider it fair. Most agreed the HOT lanes had reduced congestion on the freeway.

Seattle-area motorists haven’t paid tolls since they were taken off the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge in 1979. But Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis said the notion is worth a look on Highway 167.

“We’re desperate,” he said. “We are dealing with a road that is a failed system. We have to look at every option that is available to us.”

The $200,000 feasibility study will analyze possible HOT-lane design, operation, toll revenues and impact on traffic, Cummings said.

State Sen. Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, who chairs the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, said he doesn’t favor changing state law to permit HOT lanes now. He said it could divert public attention from what he considers a more pressing need: finding money for more general-purpose capacity.

“I think you’d have a public perception of, ‘There’s HOT lanes out there – let them pay for it,’ ” Horn said.

But Bruce Agnew, of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, who co-authored a report earlier this year that called for a regional network of HOT lanes, said the state Transportation Department’s Highway 167 effort is an important first step.

HOT lanes can offer relief much sooner and more cheaply than proposals to widen Highway 167, I-405, Highway 520 and other freeways, Agnew said.

“They’re getting the public used to the idea of making a choice between time and money,” he said. “It’s the ultimate consumer choice.”

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com