Disagreement On Toll Lanes Might Quash SR 167 Test

Disagreement on toll lanes might quash SR 167 test
“Lexus lanes,” or a quick fix for clogged roads?

Modern tollways may be popping up on freeways around the country and the world, but Washington might have a tough time getting just a nine-mile pilot project on State Route 167, the Valley Freeway.

Even if the state Legislature lets solo drivers buy their way into the HOV lanes — to be renamed HOT lanes for “high occupancy tolls” — critics say it might be a flaming failure.

“I think it’s for the rich people,” said Lacie Parrino, a customer service supervisor from Auburn. “They’d be the only ones who would use it.”

Parrino was one of four SR 167 commuters invited to an all-day conference last week on tolls and technology at Microsoft’s Redmond campus.

The debate over HOT lanes was front and center among consultant experts, politicians and highway officials brought together by the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Project in an effort to debate the region’s transportation future.

Experts love HOT lanes, highway officials are cautiously optimistic, but politicians and drivers are divided.

And that can bring gridlock, similar to what’s happened in Portland, Ore.

“The conclusion of three studies on this is `do nothing,’ `do nothing,’ and `do nothing, yet,”’ said Rex Burkholder, a Metro councilor in Portland.

“That’s how optimistic we are about this,” he said sarcastically.

Still, Burkholder and others are pushing for a way to bridge the divide between theory and practice.

“All our studies show it reduces congestion, moves freight and raises revenue,” he said. “We’re looking for how do we get the message across to the public who says, `We’ve already paid for this once.”’

In Washington state, there is no perfect moment for launching HOT lanes, Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said. Politics and public relations are in the way.

“This is going to be a tough vote, but it’s a doable vote,” he said.

Despite the studies showing that general traffic benefits, critics still call them Lexus lanes. The state is readying for a “long jump across a wide crevasse, MacDonald said.

“I think we have a long way to go to get a real foothold with the citizens that this is progress,” he said. “How do we overcome that, I don’t know.”

The state has proposed testing HOT lanes for two-years on SR 167 because there is a lot of congestion there and room to sell to solo drivers in the HOV lanes. Tolls would be electronically collected and might average $1 a trip between Interstate 405 in Renton and Auburn.

Construction — including a 4-foot-wide buffer and wide shoulder for breakdowns and state troopers — will cost $14 million, money the state doesn’t yet have. The state Legislature is being asked for both the cash and permission for the study.

HOT lanes are a success in California and Texas, and tolls are charged in dozens of states on the East Coast. HOT lane supporters argue that drivers who pay to use the lanes free up space in the general lanes.

Here, though, enthusiasm is tepid at best.

“I’m hearing neither wild enthusiasm nor wild opposition,” said Peter Hurley, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.

Hurley said toll proposals in the early 1990s were skewered by the public; only the Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll project survived.

“We’re concerned you’re putting all your eggs in one basket and could be set back another decade,” Hurley said. He proposed the state consider testing tolls instead on the Interstate 5 or Interstate 90 express lanes.

Hurley said SR 167 toll lane traffic will be forced to weave to get to Interstate 405, and argued for building safe acceleration and deceleration lanes.

Parrino said she doesn’t try to hurry during her daily 4-6 p.m. commute home, and tunes in smooth jazz to ease her stress.

“Most people are driving to and from work every day, and are living paycheck to paycheck. They’re commuting at that time because they have to clock-in,” Parrino said. “I’d save the extra $5 and make sure the kids have lunch money the next day.”

Some Valley Freeway drivers at the conference supported HOT lanes.

“I think it’s a great idea if they can impose it properly,” said Kerry Creson, a paralegal from Auburn. “I’d pay $2.50 or $3.”

But, she said, the state should also fix bottlenecks south of the proposed HOT lanes.

Fred Thomas, a general contractor from Auburn, said he would pay. With a truck full of tools and equipment, he can’t ride the bus. “I’m willing to try anything to ease the traffic.”

Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, a Republican from Redmond and vice-chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, will propose the change in state law to allow the two-year pilot project.

“It’s a new idea and, for better or worse, new ideas always face a challenging time in Olympia,” Finkbeiner said. He said the logic behind HOT lanes will win the day, eventually, but they aren’t the final solution to gridlock.

An opposite view is held by Doug Ericksen, ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. He said the lanes should be restricted to 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m., and free to all otherwise. He plans to reintroduce his proposed law next session.

“People don’t want HOT lanes, they want to be driving in the HOV lanes at 11 o’clock in the morning when nobody else is there,” Ericksen said.

At the conference, Sen. Jim Horn said opening the door to HOT lanes might make it harder in Olympia to raise more money for general traffic lanes.

Horn, the Republican chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, said HOT lanes are also hot fodder for talk radio, making it harder to persuade voters to pass a proposed $14 billion roads measure in King County that Horn supports.

Horn’s Democratic counterpart in the House, state Rep. Ed Murray, said tolls and innovative financing are crucial to keeping global companies like Microsoft in Washington.

“If we don’t change the way we fund transportation today, the jobs we want will be in India and Ireland.”

Jeff Switzer can be reached at or 425-453-4234.