A beat-up red convertible bumps south along Interstate 405. Driver Cynthia Ulrich is about to break her boycott on the freeway’s new toll lanes -- all to help KUOW illustrate how tolls are collected and spent.
But she’s not happy about it.
Ulrich says the toll lanes have made traffic in the general-purpose lanes unbearable and it costs too much to use them. She’s even joined a group called Stop405tolls.org.
“The tolls have extraordinarily burdened the average commuter,” she says.
As she drives, magnetic sensors in the roadway measure traffic speed and volume. Tolls go up as traffic gets worse.
Up ahead, a metal bar loaded with equipment hangs over the lane.
“Ah, here we come,” she said. “We’re just about now to go under the cameras with the lights catching my license plate and we do that … now!”
In his Pioneer Square office, engineer Tyler Patterson of the state Department of Transportation points to a spot on a computer map. “So right there is where a toll is born. Right where you can see a little 11? That’s right where it happens.”
What happened at that spot is the bumper of Ulrich’s red convertible just passed through a “laser curtain,” triggering cameras to photograph her front and back license plates, triggering a sensor to look for the Good To Go transponder she refuses to purchase out of principle.
Patterson can’t see Ulrich’s car from his computer, but he knows what’s happening because he helped design the system. The information about her car traveled from the overhead sensors to a computer in a roadside cabinet. “And all those little cabinets on the side of the road report back to headquarters and say, ‘Hey, I saw this vehicle there at this time,’” Patterson said. A server at the new traffic control center in Shoreline gathers those messages then builds what’s called a “trip.”
That’s a report about where someone drove and what they must pay – the price they first saw when they entered the toll lane – even if it goes up or down after that.
Patterson is part of the state’s crew of engineers in Pioneer Square. He gets excited about math that calculates the price of tolls.
“The algorithm is really exciting,” said Patterson, who worked on it himself. “You have to be a nerd to say that.”
Of every toll, 19 cents pays for engineers like Patterson. That 19 cents also pays for toll system administrators – and their staplers and offices and stuff.
They work hard, but they can’t predict everything. One time, the tolls shot up to $10 a trip. That’s supposed to discourage use of the toll lanes, when traffic is heavy. Instead, people poured into the toll lanes.
Use all the great mathematics and logic that you want, Patterson says. “And then you throw in people’s behavior. And that’s the factor you don’t understand.”
They’ve had to tweak the algorithm.
Of course, the tolls pay for more than algorithms and nerds like Patterson: 15 cents of every toll goes to keeping the hardware working.
Some of that pays the salary of Kirkland resident Tony Marti. Standing on the side of I-405, he pointed to the overhead sensors his team maintains for Schneider Electric, a multinational company.
When a piece of equipment goes down, his crew will hot-swap in a new one, sometimes at night, rather than try to perform fine calibrations while being held up in the air in a bucket truck. The object is to disrupt traffic as little as possible.
The roadside cabinets are a little easier. “We’ll get into these cabinets and service them, to make sure that there’s no rats in there, little critters or anything building nests in there,” Marti said. Rats? Not yet – this job is too new. But it won’t be new forever.
“Yeah, a rat could definitely get into the cabinet through the conduits,” Marti said. “I mean, we plugged them all, but you never know. If it’s a strong rat …”
But the biggest chunk of each toll isn’t spent on rats.
Twenty cents from every toll goes to making people happy. Or at least, trying to.
“Thank you for contacting The Good To Go Customer Service Center,” says the recording. “We are experiencing high call volumes … The average hold time is 25 minutes.” That could give you time to develop ill will toward whoever might be taking their own sweet time getting to you and your question.
“Just like anyone waiting in line, you want to get on with your life,” said Patricia Michaud. She’s in charge of customer service for the WSDOT toll division. Behind her at the call center in Seattle’s University District, 38 customer service reps sat in front of computer screens answering telephone calls on headsets. They are her army of patient, smiling representatives waging a public relations battle one person at a time. She’s trying to staff up, but it takes time to train people.
“In May we were getting about 2,500 calls a day,” she said. “Today, it’s between 4,000 and 5,000 calls coming in to the customer center. So volume has doubled.”
People call for many reasons. Some forgot to slide the Good To Go transponder into the correct position and were charged for a trip that should have been free. Others failed to set up their Good To Go accounts correctly and were charged a higher rate. One agent was speaking to a customer who refused to pay any toll over $2.
It takes a patient person to work in customer service. “Some of the best reps are either old souls, or older people, who have a little bit more life experience and can empathize with the customer,” Michaud said.
She’s quick to point out that not everyone who calls is angry about the tolls. And she says that often times those who call angry end their call satisfied.
Customer service rep Matt Reagan just got off the phone with a customer. The customer had a late fee that was almost $50. Reagan made it go away.
“She was ready to pay the $50.55. And I’m like, ‘How about we pay $5.55?’” he said. “And she was like, ‘What?’”
Customer service reps can forgive late fees like that, once per customer. It’s a new program designed to ease the transition for people who may be new to the toll payment system.
So when you add it all up, we’ve spent 54 cents of every toll creating algorithms, keeping the rats out of the equipment and answering phones.
But tolls range from 75 cents to $10. The extra money goes to more improvements in the I-405 corridor.
During her 405 trip, Cynthia Ulrich said she doesn’t trust the state to spend that money wisely.
“We have been lulled into believing that if we get into the toll lanes and pay the money, then we are helping to improve traffic,” she said. “What has happened is that traffic has not been improved in any way, shape or form.”
State numbers suggest the toll lanes have made traffic worse in some spots, such as north of Bothell – stamp out bottlenecks in one place and the backups can pop up somewhere else. But the numbers do show faster commutes, even in the general-purpose lanes, along most of 405.
We’ll find out how much money the tolls have raked in over their first three months in late January.