WSDOT's illusion of choice on I-405

Feb 13, 2018

A recent article in Crosscut highlighted that I-405 express toll lanes (ETLs) “are cutting traffic times – but not by enough.”

The point made repeatedly throughout the article is that although the toll lanes aren’t perfect, they provide money to the state and offer drivers choice.

Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center, noted, “Individuals have the option of paying for a better level of service when they choose. Choice is a really good thing, particularly when you are choosing between mediocre alternatives, because at least you pick the best alternative for you.”

Hallenbeck is right that paying to save a few minutes in the fast lanes is a choice, albeit a mediocre one.

It is mediocre because it’s a choice between a slow trip in the “free” general-purpose lanes, or a slightly less slow trip in paid “express” toll lanes. It’s the kind of menu of choices people have come to expect when government is the only entity allowed to offer them.

In many states across the country, officials have tapped the private sector to maintain and expand roads to increase mobility. In Washington state, however, officials are reluctant to use private financing to build infrastructure. Thus, the state’s laws regarding public-private partnerships continue to be restrictive. The private sector can propose solutions and offer the public another source of possibility. Instead, people have no choice but to go through WSDOT.

In the case of I-405, the choices WSDOT offers are failing because reducing congestion is not a priority. It can’t be. Reducing congestion for non-paying drivers reduces the incentive for those drivers to “want” to pay to access the toll lanes, and thus reduces profits to the state.

Choice is an important American value and I understand why the Washington State Department of Transportation, Sound Transit, and even nonprofits like Transportation Choices Coalition use that rhetoric to promote government projects.

However, it is disingenuous since those same agencies and groups do everything they can to limit other choices to promote the option they prefer.

Choices do not have to be mediocre – they can be better. But that will require more competition, not less.