Will they grow from this?

I-405 congestion forces WSDOT to go in another direction

February 29, 2016

Farmers are professors of what comes out of the ground, but not all are astute when it comes to buildings sitting on land.

I recently moved to a new subdivision, which is connected to a stronger school district. Our area has one of the most aggressive forms of population growth in the state of Illinois, and the school board has been frantically trying to keep up for over a decade now. Many believe it is time to build another high school, but the root of the problem is attached to the current one, which was built in the early 2000s. Back then the school board was stocked full of farmers, which I guess was an accurate reflection of the demographic at the time. Despite the rocket growth much of the land in command of the school district is still rural. However, the caretakers of corn and wheat did not demand a school big enough to store any type of increase in pupil pollination. 

Initially, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) did not want to get its hands dirty, either, when dealing with a commuter conundrum on a 17-mile section of I-405. WSDOT decided to take away one general-purpose lane and create a tolled high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane last September. In February, an independent assessment conducted by INRIX concluded that congestion has significantly worsened in the free travel lanes on I-405, while the HOV route has remained free-flowing. Those with three or more passengers can use the HOV lanes at no charge, but anything less than that requires a $10 payment. Naturally, the move essentially reduced the 17 miles of I-405 from five lanes down to three. Furthermore, there are no clear entry and exit points for the HOV lane, which also have contributed to the traffic slowdown. 

Commuters have been dashboard-slapping the move since inception, with more than 30,000 signing a petition to stop the tolling. WSDOT Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson recently lost her job, and some say the I-405 debacle led to the termination, but the agency is deflecting any and all tolling criticism. 

“The reason for [congestion on the north end of I-405] is that there is limited capacity in the north end, where you have five lanes funneling down to three,” said WSDOT spokesperson Emily Pace. “So that’s a capacity problem, not a tolling problem.” 

It sounds like I-405 has had the potential for a capacity problem for some time, even before the installation of an HOV lane, so why would a state agency make the decision to charge as much as $10 to use a row of this precious commodity? The answer is obvious. WSDOT is hurting for money, and has been for quite some time, and I guess the thought was this tactic would harvest some additional funds. Despite the lack of transportation planning intelligence here, over $3 million has been raised since the tolling started.  

WSDOT would like to have more time to further evaluate traffic on I-405, claiming the sample size used by INRIX was too short. There also have been claims that the report lacks data that has resulted in a biased view. A couple of readers reached out to me after Roads & Bridges posted a poll about the problems on I-405. To paraphrase, they said the route had turned into a mess and had little hope the situation would correct itself. 

On Feb. 16, Gov. Jay Inslee said I-405 charges would continue, but WSDOT said it would be building additional lanes to help ease congestion. If only that was done at the beginning. In the future, maybe some WSDOT transportation solutions should be farmed out. R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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