Tolls on SR 167 HOT lanes finally profitable
The HOT lanes are finally turning a profit after three years of red ink.
More people are paying to drive in state Route 167’s car pool lanes, which run from Auburn to Renton. But that’s only half the story.
State government also reports spending less than half of what it once did on the project, mostly because of a bookkeeping change: Overhead costs are spread among more projects.
The state has charged nearly two-thirds of the costs of a new state tolling hub to the state Route 520 bridge project, even during the months of delays in tolling drivers crossing Lake Washington. Tolls on 520 start Thursday after glitches cost the state an estimated $1 million a week in missed revenue.
“As you add facilities, of course, you gain efficiencies,” Department of Transportation spokeswoman Patty Michaud said.
Michaud said the state also got a better deal on back-office services by switching to Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp. from the previous back-office vendor, TransCore.
The 167 lanes still would be in the red if operational costs had remained at the higher levels. But increased usage also had a role in boosting their profitability.
In fact, the HOT lanes would have kept losing money – even with the accounting change that began in mid-February – if not for a steady rise in the number of drivers paying to use them.
The average number of drivers on Tuesdays through Thursdays – the most consistent traffic days – topped 3,000 starting in March, up from just more than 2,000 a year earlier.
The numbers keep climbing, but they are still a far cry from the 5,000 to 10,000 drivers that state consultants once predicted would use the lanes. Including traffic in regular lanes, roughly 120,000 drivers make the trip daily.
HOT lane revenue for April, May and June hit $239,000, the highest ever. Revenue increased by half over the same period in 2010.
It dipped a little in the period spanning July, August and September, the most recent available – but spending also declined, allowing profit to grow to $17,000.
There, too, the 520 bridge is helping. As Eastside residents have opened prepaid Good to Go accounts in preparation for 520 tolling, they have become potential customers for the state on 167.
“With our sales increase in passes for the 520 toll bridge, I think people are saying, ‘I’ve got my Good to Go pass; I can try these out.’” Michaud said.
The success or failure of the lanes has statewide implications because plans call for expanding them to other areas, including on Interstate 405 – which could be linked to 167 to create 50 miles of toll lanes from Lynnwood to Puyallup.
Voters declined to erect a barrier to such expansion when they rejected Initiative 1125 last month. The Tim Eyman-sponsored measure would have banned the variable tolling that shifts rates on 167 anywhere from 50 cents to $9 based on traffic. The average toll is $1.
Some state lawmakers remain skeptical. Sen. Joe Fain, an Auburn Republican, said the department hasn’t yet shown it can recoup the construction costs of the toll lanes.
Route 167 HOT lanes cost about $18 million to build.
“It’s good to see that we’re not totally underwater on some of these facilities,” Fain said, “but if I just started being able to make enough money for a mortgage payment but I still don’t have enough money for the down payment, I’m still not going to be able to buy a house.”
As 167 struggled to meet revenue goals, state officials preferred to talk about the successes, saying it had accomplished its goal of shaving minutes off commutes by increasing the pace of rush-hour traffic in both the HOT lanes and regular lanes.
Rush-hour speeds dipped a bit last year in all lanes, but cars in the regular lanes were still traveling south at 46 mph, up from 42 mph in 2007 before the HOT lanes opened. Northbound cars didn’t see as much of an improvement, about 1 mph faster.
HOT lane drivers cruise at nearly 60 mph.
“We’ve already confirmed that the SR 167 HOT lanes are doing what they were designed to do: reduce congestion and improve travel times for everyone traveling on this corridor,” state toll director Craig Stone said in a WSDOT news release issued this month. “Revenue covering the HOT lanes’ operational cost is frosting on the cake – it’s a great achievement as we enter the fourth year of the pilot program.”
The experiment will get at least a fifth year. Lawmakers last winter extended it through June 2013. They will eventually decide whether to continue the project or turn the lanes into regular carpool lanes.
Fain said he isn’t yet convinced by traffic-flow figures, questioning whether high unemployment has decreased congestion, though the state says traffic has stayed steady.
Maybe it’s just symbolic, but the senator has given in on one front.
He went to Costco this month and bought a Good to Go pass.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826