By Mark Klaas
Valley Freeway, meet I-405.
Two of Puget Sound’s most congested highways could meet halfway in a bid to alleviate regional traffic trauma.
So hope state transportation and legislative leaders.
Different in personality but similar in function, more rural State Route 167 and more urbanized Interstate 405 hold a critical, direct link in whether the state ultimately can create a 50-mile-long “I-5 alternative” for commuters all too familiar with workday gridlock.
The Washington Department of Transportation is conducting an I-405 and SR 167 Eastside Corridor Tolling Study – a phase-by-phase, option-by-option inquiry to determine if a vastly enhanced north-south freeway alternative is possible in the years ahead.
Auburn’s Senior Activity Center recently staged a WSDOT open house/discussion session with the public. Few attended, but many officials hope the campaign will catch on. Comments will be included in a report to Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature in January.
“People want a choice,” said Denise Cieri, WSDOT engineer and deputy project manager. “The biggest challenge is getting people educated on what the benefits would be.”
The study seeks public input to determine if east can meet south, buoyed by a smoother I-405/SR 167 connection, additional express toll lanes and other time-saving means to serve commuters.
In these difficult economic times, it is a daunting attempt to explain the benefits of a creative, yet expensive “I-5 II.”
The big question in all of this is: Who will pay for it?
Options include raising the federal gas tax, utilizing toll revenue and securing federal funding.
“We’re trying to leverage any money that’s available,” said Janet Matkin, WSDOT spokesperson. “It’s a good plan. It’s finding the funding to implement it.”
To make it possible, the WSDOT wants to pay for the project carefully by introducing it step by step.
Some Auburnites, however, remain skeptical.
“If they put in a toll, what convinces me they won’t raise it?” said one woman.
The I-405 Corridor Program would involve more than 150 individual, coordinated projects to relieve congestion and improve mobility for motorists, transit and freight users along the freeway’s 30-mile length. The master plan for repairing snarled I-405 traffic includes many transportation modes, adding up to two new lanes each direction to I-405, a corridor-wide bus rapid transit line and increased local transit service. It will fix bottlenecks such as the SR 167/I-405 interchange mess, improve major arterials, expand transit centers and add about 1,700 new vanpools and more than 5,000 park-and-ride spaces.
“The connectivity to 167 is a key expansion puzzle piece,” Cieri said.
The Valley Freeway is a major player in all this, and Auburn stands to gain. The project aims to improve safety and relieve congestion on 27 miles of SR 167 between Renton and Puyallup.
Do nothing and traffic promises to worsen.
In the Green River Valley, the population grew by 68 percent 1980 and 2000, and is projected to grow another 39 percent by 2030, according to WSDOT numbers. Employment nearly doubled between 1980 and 2000 with growth projections of another 50 percent in 20 years. This could mean another 90,000 jobs in the Valley by the year 2030, which is good news. Increasing development, however, often brings more bumpers and exhaust pipes.
A corridor that carried 15,000 vehicles per day in 1970 now carries 120,000 vehicles on a busy weekday. Without future investments, southbound travel time on the corridor could zoom from an average of 20 minutes to more than an hour by 2030.
For now, transportation officials are considering the addition of up to two express toll lanes that would connect with existing high occupancy toll, or HOT lanes, on state Route 167.
A nine-mile stretch along Auburn has served as a mildly successful pilot project for WSDOT. During peak hours, more commuters are using HOT lanes where drivers pay on average of a dollar to use the lanes, even if driving alone, to save an average of 10 minutes on a commute.
State officials say traffic flow on the general purpose lanes of SR 167 has improved as a result of the HOT lanes project.
If approved, phase one would turn existing carpool lanes on sections of I-405 into HOT lanes.
Officials said in years to come, if funding is available, there could be a 50-mile HOT lane corridor running from Puyallup in the south to Lynnwood in the north.
The plan is worth a close look and consideration.
Seattle-Tacoma is not Southern California, where freeway options abound. Nationally, more cities are resorting to tolls to build and maintain freeway systems.
Perhaps it might be time for this region to face the music and consider such an alternative.
Note: The public can take an online project survey.
Auburn Reporter Editor Mark Klaas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.