The evolution of WSDOT's language justifying their failure to meet I-405 speed targets

By MARIYA FROST  | 
Jan 16, 2019
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At Washington Policy Center, we dissect public agency reports over coffee so you don’t have to. Sometimes we find interesting information, which we like to share with the public.  

For example, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) toll division releases a report for I-405 express toll lanes every quarter. We noticed the recent report seemed different than what we have read in the past.

The inconsistency that stood out was the way WSDOT officials chose to report whether the express toll lanes were meeting state and federal requirements that the lanes operate 45 miles per hour at least 90 percent of the time (or be shut down after the two-year test period). The second requirement is that the toll lanes generate enough revenue to cover operating costs, which they do.

In order to remain open, state law indicates the toll lanes must meet both requirements – not just one. In other words, the toll lanes can’t just bring in money for the state but fail to provide reliable and fast travel to the public.

WSDOT officials think differently, and continue to collect millions from drivers in toll revenue today despite promises that the tolls would be shut down if they failed to meet both the revenue and speed requirement.  

What we found in WSDOT’s documentation was inconsistencies in how officials reported their obligation to meet these requirements. This portion of the report was frequently either titled differently or worded differently or even worse - moved to the appendix.

In other words, WSDOT’s language over time became increasingly more obscure.

This is the kind of wordsmithing that makes it difficult for the public to hold public agencies accountable and to trust them at their word. It’s also the type of exercise in reporting that suggests WSDOT officials know they remain on shaky legal ground in their efforts to keep tolls open and money flowing to the agency.  

Below are quotes we have pulled from WSDOT’s I-405 toll updates, specifically language about the legislative speed requirement.

Note how the language evolves over time, as WSDOT goes from being required to meet the speed metric with I-405 tolls to being required only to report speed; from being required to meet both speed and revenue mandates to keep tolls in place to being required to fail both speed and revenue mandates in order for the tolls to be shut down.

We have bolded the relevant words/phrases. Below the quotes, you can find the same list, but in screenshots from respective sources.

  • *“Requirements (a) and (e) above must be achieved within two years of operations, as directed by the Legislature.” – 3 month update
     
  • *Note: per the legislative direction, the revenue and express toll lane speed must be achieved within the first years of operations.” – 6 month update
     
  • *Note: per the legislative direction, the revenue and express toll lane speed must be achieved within the first years of operations.” – 9 month update

 

(Legislative performance measures chart where this note was included as an asterisk was moved to appendix for all future reports after one year, and the asterisk note was removed altogether)
 

  •  “The Federal Highway Administration requires that express toll lane performance be monitored closely.” – 12 month update
     
  • The Federal Highway Administration requires WSDOT to report on express toll lanes operating speed performance on an annual basis in July…The FHWA has set a speed standard of 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time during peak periods to be reported in 180 day increments. For this report to be consistent with the 180 reporting period requested by FHWA, WSDOT will report the metric for the last 180 days of operations.” – 15 month update
     
  • The Federal Highway Administration requires WSDOT to report on express toll lanes operating speed performance on an annual basis in July…The FHWA has set a speed standard of 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time during peak periods to be reported in 180 day increments. For this report to be consistent with the 180 reporting period requested by FHWA, WSDOT will report the metric for the last 180 days of operations (October 2016 – March 2017).” – 18 month update
     
  • “45 mph metric: RCW 47.56.880 requires WSDOT to report on express toll lanes operating speed performance based on whether the lanes are reaching 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time during peak periods.” – 21 month update
     
  • “The legislation that authorized the construction and operation of the I-405 express toll lanes requires WSDOT to report quarterly on seven performance measures. The statute also stipulates that if the lanes fail to meet both of the standards below [revenue, speed], they will be closed as soon as practicable.” – 24 month update
     
  • “Legislative performance measures: The legislation that authorized the construction and operation of the I-405 express toll lanes requires WSDOT to report quarterly on seven performance measures. The statute also stipulates that if the lanes fail to meet both of the standards below [revenue, speed], they will be closed as soon as practicable.” – 27 month update
     
  • “Legislative performance measures: The legislation that authorized the construction and operation of the I-405 express toll lanes requires WSDOT to report quarterly on seven performance measures. The statute also stipulates that if the lanes fail to meet both of the standards below [revenue, speed], they will be closed as soon as practicable.” – 30 month update
     
  • “Speed Reliability: “WSDOT is required to report to the Federal Highway Administration annually on whether the express toll lanes are moving 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time during peak periods. While the express toll lanes have reduced travel times and increased speeds during peak periods in the corridor, some sections have fallen short of the legislative performance measure of maintaining speeds of 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time during peak periods. WSDOT reports this measure in six month increments, to align with Federal Highway Administration reporting.” / “Legislative Requirements: When combining both the dual lane and single lane sections of the express toll lanes, traffic moves at 45 mph 80 percent of the time during peak periods. The old HOV lanes met that goal only 62 percent of the time during peak periods from January to June 2015.” – 33 month update
     
  • “The legislation that authorized the construction and operation of the I-405 express toll lanes requires WSDOT to report quarterly on seven performance measures. The statute also stipulates that if the lanes fail to meet both of the standards below [revenue, speed], they will be closed as soon as practicable.” – 36 month update

Screenshots/Sources

3-month update (Sep. 2015 – Dec. 2015)

6-month update (Jan. 2016 – Mar. 2016)

9-month update (Apr. 2016 – June 2016)

12-month update (Oct. 2015 – Sep. 2016)

  • The legislative performance measures chart seen above in previous reports was moved to the appendix for all future reports at this time, and the asterisk beneath the chart with the note about the importance of meeting both speed and revenue requirements was removed altogether.

15-month update (Oct. 2015 – Dec. 2016)

 

 

 

 

 

 

18-month update (Oct. 2015 – Mar. 2017)

21-month update (Oct. 2015 – June 2017)

24-month update (Oct. 2015 – Sep. 2017)

27-month update (Oct. 2015 – Dec. 2017)

30-month update (Oct. 2015 – March 2018)

33-month update (Oct. 2015 – June 2018)

 

36-month update (Oct. 2015 – Oct. 2018)