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Originally published April 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 28, 2008 at 1:07 PM

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Drivers ready to pay when Highway 167 "HOT lanes" open Saturday

Washington state's latest highway experiment can't begin soon enough for John Mastandrea, a real-estate developer who takes Highway 167...

Seattle Times transportation reporter

How to use HOT lanes

A $12 windshield-mounted transponder is required for solo drivers to use the Highway 167 high-occupancy or toll lanes, starting May 3. If a driver has at least one other passenger he or she would need to cover the transponder with a state-issued metal shield, so the driver won't be charged a toll. The same windshield sticker can be used on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

When a prepaid toll account drops below $6, the state sends a message, usually by e-mail, telling the driver to add money. Failure to do that can result in a citation of $49 per unpaid trip. Most users have signed up for "automatic replenishment," meaning money is withdrawn from their credit card or checking account.

To order a transponder: See www.wsdot.wa.gov/goodtogo. Or phone 1-866-936-8246. Drivers also can go to a service center at 3212 50th Street Court N.W., Suite 200, Gig Harbor, WA 98335.

Project information: www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects/SR167/HOTLanes

Washington state's latest highway experiment can't begin soon enough for John Mastandrea, a real-estate developer who takes Highway 167 on his commute to Seattle.

"When I leave in the morning, it's before 5 a.m., so it's about 25 minutes," the Auburn resident says. "But going home in the afternoon, it's an hour to an hour and a half. You can imagine the brain damage, sitting in traffic."

Mastandrea is one of about 9,000 people who have signed up to use the new high-occupancy or toll "HOT lanes" on Highway 167, starting Saturday.

For a price, Mastandrea and other solo drivers can jump out of the clogged general lanes from Auburn to Renton and cruise in the faster car-pool lane along the nine-mile corridor. One-way tolls will range from 50 cents to $9, depending on traffic. A typical rush-hour toll will be $4 to $5.

Buses and car pools of two or more occupants will continue to use the HOT lanes for free.

If the concept proves popular in a four-year, $18 million test, more miles of these HOT lanes might be added to Interstate 405, I-5 express lanes, the I-90 floating bridge and other roadways, state transportation officials say.

How it works

When the interstate-highway network was launched in the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower wanted to fund it through tolls. But users were unwilling to stop every few miles and pay cash at a toll booth, so they became "freeways."

Technology has solved that problem, says Mary Peters, the federal transportation secretary.

Drivers can pay on the fly using computer chips, fastened to their cars with windshield stickers. First, they pay money into a state-run toll account. Electronic readers, mounted on poles above the highway, display the current toll, read the chip and deduct money from the account — like a debit card.

Magnetic loops in the pavement measure the speed and number of cars. Whenever bad traffic creates a speed advantage in the HOT lane, the toll rises, to whatever price will keep cars moving in that lane at 45 mph.

The state Department of Transportation expects a steady flow of traffic in the HOT lane because some drivers won't jump into the lane when tolls become very high.

Not Mastandrea. "I'll pay $9 — it doesn't even bother me — for my time."

Solo drivers who enter the special lane without a windshield transponder can be ticketed for $124.

Lexus lanes?

The chief complaint against HOT lanes is that they are so-called "Lexus lanes" that favor affluent drivers at the expense of the poor.

Supporters, however, argue that the toll really represents a voluntary tax on the rich, and that lower-wage workers can pay on occasion to use the lanes if they're hurrying to pick up a child from day care, for example, or rushing to work.

There's not much research on who really uses such toll lanes, said Dave Ungemah, a scientist for the Texas Transportation Institute. A study in 2000 found that on Highway 91 in Orange County, Calif., solo drivers with household incomes above $100,000 took the HOT lanes for just more than half of their trips. Drivers with household incomes under $40,000 used the lanes for 20 percent of their trips.

Surveys in San Diego, Minneapolis and elsewhere found widespread public support for HOT lanes, because drivers felt the lanes at least gave them a choice between paying or sitting in traffic. But some drivers surveyed say they resent toll lanes, in general, because they already pay gas taxes and believe freeway lanes should be open to all.

Highway 167 may prove to be a good road for experimenting with tolls because "it had the most space to sell," says Mark Hallenbeck, traffic expert at the University of Washington. An additional 1,000 to 1,100 cars could be using the car-pool lane at peak commute hours, so there's room to slip in another 600 toll-paying drivers, without losing speed, according to the state.

The toll revenue is expected to help cover costs of maintaining the HOT-lane system and possibly help pay for transit and car pooling on Highway 167.

The state will be watching to see who uses the lane. Of concern is whether some car pooling will stop as drivers realize they can go it alone and simply pay for improved travel time.

In a similar HOT-lane test on Minnesota's I-394, the freeway experienced heavier traffic as the number of car pools declined by about 25 percent.

"We should be concerned if HOT lanes decrease car pooling, because we're talking about more cars, more energy use," said Stuart Schwartz, executive director of Coalition for Smarter Growth in Washington, D.C., which is skeptical about a similar HOT-lane project planned there.

Just last week in Los Angeles, officials approved HOT-lane projects where solo drivers or drivers with just one other rider can pay a variable toll to use the car-pool lane.

Still new to nation

Nationwide, only six HOT-lane corridors have been built, though the idea has been around since the 1990s. Ungemah, of the Texas transportation think tank, thinks officials are moving gingerly because of concern that the lanes will be perceived as favoring the rich and because traffic effects are hard to measure.

Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude: "It's kind of a new world. We need to see what works and what doesn't," said Mike O'Brien, regional chairman of the Sierra Club in Seattle. O'Brien said he hopes tolls in general will reduce traffic and decrease the pollution that contributes to global warming.

As for the future, Paula Hammond, state transportation secretary, said she doesn't foresee another gas-tax increase, so more tolling will be needed to maintain or expand highways.

A logical next HOT-lane extension would be I-405, according to Bruce Agnew, of the Seattle-based Cascadia Center think tank. Those lanes could connect to Highway 167 and generate funds that in turn could help pay for widening I-405, he said.

"I suspect that people would be willing to pay top dollar to get through that choke point," he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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