Buried in the House transportation budget is permission for an extra year of the pilot project that allows lone drivers to buy their way into car pool lanes between Auburn and Renton.
House Transportation Committee chairwoman Judy Clibborn wants to extend the state Route 167 experiment until June 2013 because she is trying to put the same pay-to-use lanes — known as high occupancy toll or HOT lanes — on Interstate 405 from Lynnwood to Bellevue. Eventually, she foresees connecting the two stretches of lanes, and she doesn’t want the Route 167 project to lapse before that can happen.
“I want them from Lynnwood to Puyallup,” said Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.
A large expansion of the lanes would ease traffic congestion and help raise money for improvements to I-405 and the extension of Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma, she and other supporters say.
The HOT lanes continue to lose money nearly three years after the four-year pilot project began. But WSDOT says they are about to start breaking even, because with the start of tolling on the Route 520 bridge, the costs of state tolling are spread among more toll projects.
“Now they don’t cost us anything,” Clibborn said.
Rep. Mark Hargrove of Covington, a freshman Republican who helped write the transportation budget, says the HOT lanes were a bad idea from the beginning. But if the state is no longer losing money on them, he said, it doesn’t hurt to wait an extra year to shut down the project.
Clibborn’s bill to toll I-405 passed the House this year, but she acknowledges it is “struggling” in the Senate.
Some senators are looking skeptically at expanding HOT lanes based on what has been seen on Route 167. They did not add time to the pilot project in their budget.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen said she wants to see more information about revenue from the Department of Transportation.
Sen. Joe Fain, another freshman Republican from Auburn working on the transportation budget, also said he needs to examine the numbers more before deciding if he favors continuing the project.
“I don’t think the Department of Transportation did a good enough job of goal setting on that project,” Fain said. “They’re talking about how it’s a success, but it’s still not paying for itself and it’s never going to make up for the capital (construction) costs.”
The department says the HOT lanes are a success because they have made commutes faster. Speeds in the regular lanes increased 11 percent in the project’s first two years, WSDOT said.