The Marine View Driver: Seventy-Five Cent Racing, or For Whom the Tolls Aren’t Baleful

Wherein the author rants about so-called traffic solutions while enjoying a seventy-five cent race.

By Mike Smith

I was driving along 405 in Bellevue the other day and saw a couple of guys racing. I thought it was a bit unusual for two cars to be racing in Bellevue, on the freeway, with so many cops watching the newly yet poorly marketed toll lanes. I don’t know if it was the cognizant disconnectedness of “Good news will soon be traveling fast” or if everyone decided that paying $0.75 to up to $2.50 or even $10.00 on rare occasions to use 405 simply to get home is too much to pay.

However, since now the lanes are hardly used, they apparently afford a perfect makeshift racetrack.

I’ve been driving I-405 multiple times a day now for the last 5 years or so. It is recently quite a bit worse (for us).

By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Like many Seattle area traffic projects, this one is up on the list of poor ideas along with the Second Avenue bike lanes. Which, by the way, are almost equally deserted. These projects are attempts at social engineering which, almost anyone but the socially-engineered can tell you, never work. People know when they are being pigeon-holed. In fact even the passenger (carrier) pigeon, formerly holed, is now extinct.

Seattle used to be a town where our glut of engineers and inventors examined, researched, and tested the behaviors of people in traffic, pedestrial, and other modes of travel. After which they examined their data and designed parks, roads, and bridges based on how best to move people in their most efficient and coherent manner. Nowadays, it seems that city planners have the idea that society can change simply by way of making normal actions so painful or inefficient that their “brilliant” ideas will be adopted. Even if resentfully so. Of course in this new generation a new wrinkle has been added. Extortion.

In the form of tolls.

Witness: I-405 (toll lanes) and the new 522 “floating” bridge (gratefully expanded from 2 lanes to… two lanes). The added bike lanes make all the difference. Essentially we are getting a 3-billion-dollar bike path. Now, I am admittedly not a trained transportation planner. But I am a professional and many-hours-a-day driver–on I-90, 522 and 405, oh! and Second Avenue for that matter–so I think that I may have a bit of legitimate feedback. And a bit of pragmatic proof.

It is my professional opinion that adding lanes is the only real way to get traffic moving. (I don’t pretend to think that moving traffic is the motive, so stick with me as I offer my pragmatic proof.) Every day at least two times a day I travel on I-90 both west- and east-bound during the busy part of the day: the commute hours. Traffic is extremely slow on the west-bound portion in the morning. And it is slow on the east-bound portion in the evenings. At some time in the past, the reversible lanes were added down the center. These of course help, but they have very limited entry/exit points. They also crunch down to one lane at both terminus locations. Creating more congestion.

So, there is some proof of lane deficit syndrome. Now for the juice: When you travel, let’s say, to a Mariners or Seahawks game from the eastside, you will encounter very congested traffic. Now of course you remember there are reversible lanes in the middle. But, they are never changed from their normal timing of east-bound in the afternoons, i.e., the hour before a Mariners game. And west-bound in the morning. So 8 cars are traveling east-bound out of town while the remainder of King County is on I-90 west-bound trying to get to the game. As you travel over Mercer Island, this road is reduced to 3 lanes, in the west-bound direction. So you travel this approximate 3- or 4-mile trip at about 15 to 20 miles an hour. The excitement is heightened of course by on-ramps from Mercer Island which further slows down the travel.

However, when you cross the lake and enter the Mt. Baker tunnel, a miraculous thing happens. The traffic begins to flow and you are at speed limit–or more depending on your pent up energy–by the time you exit. None have left the roadway. There has been no giant vacuum sucking cars out of the tunnel. Your neighbor in the next vehicle has not vaporized.  The miracle is: There are 5 lanes as you exit the tunnel. Need we more proof?

Now, back to the Seattle area traffic planners. Northbound 405 and Southbound of course have always been problematic due to volume and commuters. Not to mention the Canadian truck drivers who have discovered 405 after years of struggling on I-5 around the Convention Center. It appears to me that if you want traffic to flow better, you must add a lane. I understand the topographical problems in Seattle and environs. But don’t actually take a lane away, and add two expensive (extortionist) toll lanes and tell us it is a traffic improvement.

And while I’m on the subject, where did the WSDOT marketing group go to school? A play on an old shtick and a nursery rhyme are not the most creative marketing plans. “Good news is about to travel fast”? What kind of non-sequitur schlock is that? What does it even mean? The good news should be that you can travel fast.

And then the TV spots: Stop-action movies of people at their desks on the freeway? Really? They are probably the same people that coined Metro transit’s slogan. “We’ll get you there.” Great; my feet will get me there. The issue is when? Sheesh.

Plus, if you are truly trying to make this sound good, why not try: “Seventy-five cents says I can get you home faster”! At least make it sound like we had a choice! Give us some skin in the game. Tempt us, make us feel daring and a bit edgy about our decision to leave our stranded friends in our GoodtoGo dust. “You had your chance, suckers!”

And how is it that the State of Washington can add tolls to federal highways anyway?

The extortion part comes in when they have essentially removed one lane (remember my proof-practicum) and force, fine, or otherwise penalize you for using the lane without their plastic device in your window. Oh, and 3+ people now, instead of 2+? You know I drive a bus. Often my bus has 80 plus people on it. I’ll guarantee you that there are seldom if ever 3 people headed to the same building on my bus. Imagine the odds of people working in the same building or block of downtown, living in a convenient proximity to where a 3-person carpool is practical.

Some history and fuel for my fire.

Here is 405 north of downtown Bellevue in 2011. Three+1, practically 4 if you disregard the carpool lane. Which everyone does. It was often slow, but not always slow. Like now.

405 Kirklan sb 2011

Here it is now.

405 Kirklan sb 2015

You’ve gone from 3 lanes with an optional, non-legally binding car pool lane (a fourth lane in my book) to 3 lanes with two taxable-use lanes. Or in a couple of other drivers’ books, racing lanes.

A thrilling race for seventy-five cents each. Seventy-five cents says that they will get home very quickly.

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