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State’s experiment with variable tolling winning converts

Post by Kim Bradford on Sep. 7, 2010 at 7:17 pm with No Comments »
September 15, 2010 8:42 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Critics of the state’s HOT lanes on state Route 167 see them as elitist, a way for wealthier commuters to buy themselves a way out of congestion.

Turns out, they are only half right. Data from the lanes’ first two years of operation suggest that toll-lane users are indeed getting where they need to be quicker. But everyone else on Route 167 is, too.

Traffic in Route 167’s regular lanes is moving on average 11 percent faster, even at a time when volumes have ticked up 2 to 3 percent.

Meanwhile, drivers are putting Route 167’s carpool lanes to better use. Once underutilized even during peak times, the HOT lanes now carry 12 percent more vehicles – with no corresponding drag on speed.

Commuters are paying an average toll of $1.25 to shave three to eight minutes off their travel time by being able to drive the posted speed limit of 60 mph.

What’s more, the number of drivers willing to pay for a faster commute is increasing. In July, the state saw a 75 percent increase in HOT lane revenue, collecting more than $50,000 that month.

That’s impressive growth two years into the state’s four-year experiment with variable tolling.

Washingtonians don’t have much experience with highway tolls, much less ones that fluctuate with traffic volumes. There was bound to be a sharp learning curve.

The project still has far to go to cover its current administrative costs, which are now running about twice as much as HOT lane revenues.

State officials think they’ll be able to pare overhead costs once they open more tolling projects and are able to spread expenses. Commuters’ increased exposure to tolls will also likely help, as experience with the Tacoma Narrows bridge tolls has proved. When people are paying upfront to use a bridge or highway, they have a vested interest in watching the state Department of Transportation’s checkbook more closely.

Breaking even is an important goal – especially if tolls are to eventually supplement highway funding – but its pursuit shouldn’t obscure the other possible financial benefits of projects like Route 167’s HOT lanes.

Anytime drivers use existing roadways more efficiently, it helps forestall the need for expensive highway-expansion projects and reduces economy-crippling congestion. Those possible benefits alone make variable tolling worth the try.

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