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State warms up to improving HOT lanes accessibility

Busy Valley Freeway: State engineers are planning to re-stripe the HOT lanes on State Route 167, a change they hope will improve traffic flow.  - Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter
Busy Valley Freeway: State engineers are planning to re-stripe the HOT lanes on State Route 167, a change they hope will improve traffic flow.
— image credit: Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter

By the end of this summer, the Washington State Department of Transportation expects it will have made it easier for motorists to get into the HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes on State Route 167.

That is, by replacing the double-white, restricted entry and exit points with a single white line, drivers will be able to change lanes at almost any location, and not only at designated access points.

Patty Rubstello, toll operations director for the WSDOT, said 40 percent of the drivers in a 2012 customer survey told the state that they heartily disliked those restrictive entry and exit points and wanted getting in and out of the HOT lanes to be easier.

Transit agencies have also let the state know it's a pain for them to use the HOT lanes because buses often have to get on and off the highway to make stops, Rubstello told Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus and the City Council during a recent briefing on the SR 167 Hot Lanes Project.

But why switch to a single white line, asked Councilman Rich Wagner.

"If it's OK to cross, why aren't there dotted lines as well?" Wagner said.

"It's just the way federal highways requires the striping to be done so it's consistent with our other HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes," Rubstello responded.

Today, it is illegal to cross the solid double-white line; drivers may only enter and exit the lane at the single-dashed line

Rubstello said WSDOT plans to maintain the double-white stripes at some locations out of safety concerns for the movements of heavy vehicles.

Signage, she added, will also reflect the change.

"We won't need our access signs anymore, and where we have access for a half-mile on the left there, we'll just emphasize that you do have to have a pass to be in those lanes," Rubstello said. "State Route 167 is different than Tacoma Narrows and 520. On those, if you don't have a Good to Go! pass, we take a picture of your license plate, and you'll still be assessed a toll, but we don't have that type of technology on 167, so we want to emphasize the need for a pass."

According to the WSDOT website, SR 167 HOT lanes are HOV lanes open to solo drivers who choose to pay a toll. Carpools of two or more, van pools and buses may use the lanes toll free. Toll rates adjust to ensure that traffic in the HOT lane flows, even when the regular lanes are congested. Solo drivers must have a Good To Go! pre-paid account to use HOT Lanes

HOT lanes give solo drivers the option to pay a toll to drive in the HOV lane. Solo drivers who choose to use the HOT lanes must install a Good To Go! pass in their vehicle and have an active Good To Go! account. A switchable pass may be turned on or off depending on the number of people in the vehicle.

Rubstello said the HOT lanes are working.

"Our performance in the last fiscal year processed more than a million transactions and collected more than $1.1 million in toll revenue," Rubstello said. "From 2008 to today, we continue to see a steady increase in those using the lanes. And what we're finding is that users are getting an eight-minute savings time in their trips for a $2 toll. And we're all noticing that general purpose lanes are improving as well. So, we're seeing an improvement in the travel speeds, and the volume has gone down as people have shifted from the general purpose lanes into those HOT lanes."

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