By Robert Whale
The Washington Department of Transportation’s decision to open nine miles of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes in May of 2008 between Auburn and Renton was aimed at giving the solo driver a choice, an opt-out from a too-often congested State Route 167 in south King County.
More than a year later, some like it HOT, some don’t.
Yes, there is room for improvement, Craig Stone, deputy administrator of the Urban Corridors program of Washington State Department of Transportation, told the Auburn City Council at the one-year mark last spring, but added that “in overall terms of technology, driver expectations and safety, it seems to be going pretty good.
“…people who are making a long trip between Sumner and Bellevue come in and give us great reviews,” Stone said. “The ones who don’t like it are the ones who got onto 167, went a couple interchanges and got back off. They say, ‘You restricted me, I had to wait to get into that lane, then I had to get back out again.’”
A single HOT lane runs in each direction of SR 167 between the Auburn and Renton. Two general-purpose lanes in each direction are open to all vehicles and toll free. Solo drivers pay a variable, electronically collected toll using the Good to Go! transponder to drive in the HOT lane when space is available. Carpools of two or more vehicles, van pools, buses and motorcycles use the lanes Toll tree without a transponder.
Here is some of the most recent program data as compiled in the SR 167 HOT Lanes Pilot Project First Annual Performance Summary, May 2008-April 2009:
- More than 30,000 Good to Go! transponder users had paid to use the HOT lanes during that one-year period
- The program generated $316,000 in gross revenue in that time.
- The average number of total tolled trips continued to increase — from 1,050 trips per weekday in May 2008 to 1,710 trips per weekday by April 2009.
- The average number of peak-hour tolled trips also continued to increase – 140 northbound trips in May 2008 compared to 270 trips in April 2009, and 100 southbound trips in May 2009 compared to 160 trips in April 2009.
- Variable tolling makes better use of carpool lanes and improves traffic flow in the corridor without affecting service for carpools and buses.
- Traffic conditions on 167 in the general purpose and HOT lanes has improved, and in both directions, vehicle speeds and overall volumes have noticeably increased during the peak period.
The lanes operate daily from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Toll rates automatically rise and fall with the level of congestion so that traffic in the lane always moves smoothly.
Since opening day, the Washington State Patrol has made more than 4,300 HOT-lane-related traffic stops, citing more than 2,000 drivers for HOV/HOT violations and more than 300 drivers for crossing the double white line that separates the HOT lane from the general purpose lanes. According to the report, however, the compliance rate is estimated at 95-97 percent.
Auburn City Councilman Bill Peloza finds the HOT lanes “extremely convenient.”
Three vehicles in the city of Auburn’s fleet are equipped with Good to Go! transponders, and when Peloza checks one of these cars out to get to a regional meeting, he uses the HOT lanes at least up to Kent where he makes the turn to get to I-5.
“I think it’s well spent taxpayers’ money,” said Peloza. “I think also that the payment for the leg between Auburn and Renton, which can vary from 50 cents to a $1.50 depending on the traffic conditions, is reasonable. It could even warrant more money for the convenience of people saving time because, let’s face it, time is worth a lot more than 50 cents or $1.50.”
“By implementation of the HOT lane program, the state was trying to make the carpool lane more efficient by opening that space for general use that would often go underused as an HOV lane, even when the general purpose lanes were heavily congested,” said Chris Hankins, a transportation planner with the City of Auburn. “The other element was managing the flow of the additional traffic of the carpool lane when that space was actually available.”
The four-year pilot program covers the years of 2008-2012, and the state Legislature will decide whether it continues beyond 2012.
Robert Whale is a writer for the Auburn Reporter. He can be contacted at email@example.com.