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Drivers save time and money with automated I-5 express lanes

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Date:  Monday, July 23, 2012

Contact: Morgan Balogh, WSDOT Traffic Engineer, 206-440-4485
Jamie Holter, WSDOT Communications, 206-440-4698

SEATTLE - If time is money, then the Washington State Department of Transportation’s newly automated Interstate 5 express lanes in Seattle are certainly a good investment.

At 11 a.m. on Monday, July 23, WSDOT engineers pushed the button that officially streamlined the way engineers switch the reversible express lanes. A switch that used to take up to an hour is scheduled to take just 15 minutes. On Monday, it took 13 minutes and 39 seconds.

“Anyone who drives I-5 midday knows how frustrating it is to be stuck in traffic and see the express lanes empty during the switch,” said Paula Hammond, state secretary of transportation. “We’re putting cars into those lanes for an additional 45 minutes.”

The automated express lanes are a key piece of the Moving Washington program, a strategy to fight congestion by using 21st century technology to get the most out of our existing highways.

Translated into vehicles, it means an extra 900 vehicles per day during the week and an extra 1000 vehicles per day on weekends. Mainline congestion will improve as more vehicles hop into the express lanes, and engineers estimate drivers will save about six minutes on every trip between Albro Street and Northgate.

“It’s not what you see, but rather what you don’t see,” said Morgan Balogh, WSDOT traffic engineer. Most of the new systems are above the line of sight or underground.

The newly automated system uses 45 new cameras, new signs, new controllers, new signal and data cabinets, two new highway advisory radio stations and dozens of miles of underground fiber lines and Ethernet connections to reduce the time it takes to switch the express lanes and communicate information.

“For years, we had a team drive through and manually switch each of the 23 signs and close each of the 23 ramps,” said Balogh. “That took up to an hour most of the time.”

Now, traffic engineers can verify from a desk in Shoreline that the gates are closed and that signs are working and displaying the right message. One person will still drive the entire seven-mile corridor for a final visual inspection as a safety precaution. An online video shows the change.

“We were held hostage by the antiquated communication systems that had been in place since 1965,” said Balogh. “Now it’s a virtual drive-through.”

With the new, faster switch comes new hours of operations for the express lanes. The southbound express lanes will close at 11 a.m. and reopen to northbound traffic at 11:15 a.m. Monday through Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, the southbound express lanes will close at 1:30 p.m. and reopen at 1:45 p.m. in the northbound direction.

The project was $6.6 million, funded primarily with federal transportation dollars.

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