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Eastside transportation bills moving through the Legislature

Two sets of transportation bills in the state Legislature that would have significant effects on Eastside traffic are moving closer to passage in the House and Senate.

Senate Bill 5700 authorizes the setting of variable toll rates on the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge to pay for the cost of replacing the SR-520 route across Lake Washington.

House Bill 1382 mandates the construction of high-occupancy toll lanes (HOT) - where solo drivers would pay to use car pool lanes on Interstate 405 from Northeast Sixth Street in Bellevue to Lynnwood. A similar situation is in place on State Route 167 between Auburn and Renton.

The SR-520 bill has already made it through the Senate, and was passed out of the House Transportation Committee 20-7 Thursday.

It now has to go through the Rules Committee in the House before it comes up for vote, said 41st District Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), chair of the House Transportation Committee. That could happen as soon as an all-day work session on Saturday or Monday.

The I-405 bill, which has been met with more skepticism than SB 5700, made it through committee on Feb. 8 (15 votes to 11) and onto the floor of the House. It may be voted on by the House early next week, Clibborn said.

Friday was the last day for bills to be voted out of committee.

The SR-520 bill escaped the Senate rather easily, by a 35-10 margin, with slightly more opposition in the House Transportation Committee. Some members expressed concerns with laws that don't stipulate when the tolling would end. However, the bill received bipartisan support principally because legislators recognized the need to replace the bridge.

"This needs to be in place so we can start the process and pay for the work that needs to be done," said 12th District Rep. Mike Armstrong (R-Wenatchee), a ranking minority member on the committee.

Tolling is expected to pay for at least $1 billion of the $4.6 billion project. The project is still nearly $2 billion short of having the needed financing.

Tolls on the bridge would vary by time of day with the most expensive rates ($3.50 each way), coming during commuting hours of 7-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.

Representatives from the Washington State Department of Transportation said throughout the legislative process that the bill needs to be passed quickly, so tolling can start sometime in April.

The fate of HOT lanes on I-405 remains slightly less certain. A similar bill failed to get out of the Senate last year because of confusion over how the concept would operate. Legislators spent the next year scrutinizing

the plan, and an expert review panel approved the concept in November. Clibborn said this year's bill has a much better chance of passing because of broad participation from Eastside city representatives who served on the committee.

"There's a lot more support along the corridor," she said, while noting "there's still some people who just don't like HOT lanes."

HOT lane proposals on I-405 have received consistent criticism from a group of former legislators. Members of the Eastside Transportation Association have said the concept will create a tiered system that costs too much for the average single driver to buy into, leading to overly congested general purpose lanes, and open, if not empty HOT lanes.

The bill is part of a larger plan to implement HOT lanes throughout the more than 40-mile I-405/167 corridor from Puyallup to Lynnwood.

Critics have also pointed out the lack of decision within the bill to decide whether cars will need to have two or three occupants to use the HOT lanes freely. Aside from the two-plus/three-plus question, the other lingering issue remains financing. WSDOT's original $2 billion plan is at least $600 million short.
But the Legislature has more time to discuss issues within HB 1382, as it doesn't have the same time sensitivity for implementation as the 520 bill.

"It's not as critical that we get it done as quickly," Clibborn said. "With 5700, we're trying to do it quickly because we have early tolling to get started."

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