Politics & Government

Toll-free weekends on Route 167? It could happen

Southbound rush-hour traffic is shown on on State Route 167 in Kent on October 11, 2011.
Southbound rush-hour traffic is shown on on State Route 167 in Kent on October 11, 2011. Staff photographer

For unaccompanied drivers, using the carpool lane on state Route 167 could eventually be free on weekends, as it is on Interstate 405.

State officials are weighing a proposal to eliminate fees for solo drivers to use SR 167’s high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on weekends.

The move would ensure that the tolling policy on Route 167 matches the rules for toll lanes on I-405, state Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek.

After drivers complained about traffic congestion on I-405, which runs north-south and connects Tukwila to Lynnwood, the state Department of Transportation enacted emergency rules opening up the freeway’s new express toll lanes to general traffic on evenings and weekends.

On southbound SR 167, using the HOT lanes is already free for all vehicles between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. But on weekends, drivers without passengers must pay a toll to enter the lanes during the daytime.

SR 167 stretches from Puyallup to Renton, where it connects to I-405.

“It’s really confusing that on 167 on the weekends, the tolling system is still in place,” Harmsworth said. “You’re on 167 and you’re paying a toll, and then you get to I-405 now on a Saturday morning, and you’re not paying a toll.

“You should make it consistent, so you have one set of rules for freeways across the state.”

The Washington State Transportation Commission, which regulates tolling on state highways, is conducting an internal review of the proposal, said Reema Griffith, the commission’s executive director.

That means analyzing how opening up HOT lanes on weekends would affect toll revenue, as well as traffic patterns, she said.

If commission staff determine the plan wouldn’t negatively affect finances and operations, they will brief commission members on the idea and hold a public hearing on the proposal, she said.

It’s unlikely that would happen before early next year, however, Griffith said.

“It’s a just an idea right now and we’re looking at it,” she said. “It merits consideration, from a logical standpoint.”

A consistent tolling policy between freeways will become even more important as transportation officials continue work on SR 167, Harmsworth said.

Right now, HOT lanes on southbound SR 167 stretch about nine miles, from Renton to Auburn. State officials plan to further extend SR 167’s HOT lanes from Auburn to Pacific, as well as eventually finish a never-completed stretch of the freeway between Puyallup and the Port of Tacoma.

Eventually, drivers will pay tolls to access all lanes of the six-mile freeway extension between Puyallup and the port, transportation officials say.

State Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma and the vice chairman of the state transportation committee, said he’s not aware of many problems or complaints about weekend tolls on the HOT lanes on SR 167.

He said it’s important to make sure tolling policies are tailored to different traffic patterns on different roadways, but he doesn’t think there’s any harm in the transportation commission exploring Harmsworth’s idea.

“I think the transportation commission should be looking at these things all the time to try to perfect the outcomes for the motoring public,” Fey said. “That’s their job.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1