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HOT Lanes Advance in Seven States

Toll lanes make major gains

Robert Poole
March 12, 2004

High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes made major gains in 2003 as federal, state, and local officials endorsed either the concept or specific project proposals.

A December 29 article on the Washington Post's Web site described succinctly how HOT lanes work: "The carpool [HOT] lanes remain free to carpools, van pools, and buses, while other motorists pay a toll. The tolls are collected via electronic transponders, to prevent tollbooths from slowing or stopping traffic. To make sure the lanes don't fill up with cheaters, effective HOT lanes have room built in for police to ensure that vehicles have transponders."

HOT lanes are most effective, noted the article, when "The toll's price changes throughout the day to keep traffic moving, even during rush hours. When the lanes start to bog down, the price goes up to encourage motorists to leave the lanes or discourage them from entering. As road space frees up, the price drops. The fluctuating prices not only keep traffic moving, advocates say, but also 'stretch the highway's capacity by encouraging drivers to use it outside peak times.'"

According to the article, "HOT-lane advocates also tout the long-term potential for such lanes to improve transit." If a network of HOT lanes could be developed long-term to connect free-flowing toll lanes on several major highways, it could form a seamless web for express bus service.

Promising Possibilities

The Washington Beltway (I-495) is one of the highest-profile locations for proposed HOT lanes, and an unsolicited proposal to add two such lanes in each direction on 12 miles of the Beltway received the formal endorsement of Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board in July 2003. The Fluor Daniel company submitted a detailed proposal for the $630 million project in October.

"We are out of money in our transportation trust funds throughout our region," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic AAA. "There's no money to make the wholesale changes many would like to see. HOT lanes offer that opportunity."

The HOT lanes alternative will be included in the region's ongoing Final Environmental Impact Statement, to be wrapped up by December 2004. The project has strong local support (e.g., unanimous endorsement by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors) but is opposed by the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth, which is promoting light rail instead.

Philip Shucet, head of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), has praised the proposal as "a shining example" of a public-private partnership. VDOT will look at further applications of HOT lanes in the DC metro area using a $500,000 grant from the federal Value Pricing Pilot Program, announced in July 2003. The pilot program is also supporting further work on several other HOT lanes projects:

Other Positive Steps

In August 2003, the Atlanta Value Pricing Advisory Task Force released its report after a nearly two-year effort to evaluate how traffic pricing might help address metro Atlanta's severe congestion problems.

"Paying the Price for Congestion" concludes, "HOT/managed lanes and other congestion pricing strategies hold the greatest promise for implementing value pricing in this region at this time."

The task force looked at the possible addition of HOT lanes on 17 miles of Georgia 400 north of I-285; shifting from flat-rate to variable pricing on the tolled portion of Georgia 400; and adding HOT lanes to Georgia 316. Georgia DOT is also looking into the possibility of a network of HOT lanes on the entire freeway system.

A HOT lanes network was proposed in July 2003 by the highest-ranking official in greater Houston, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels. Eckels asked county officials to look at the feasibility of having the Harris County Toll Road Authority take over the 100 miles of HOV lanes now operated by Houston Metro, the regional transit agency.

The HOV lanes were developed originally as express busways, but were opened to carpools because they have significant excess capacity. Two of those facilities on I-10 and US 290 already have been converted to HOT lanes, and the I-10 HOT lanes will be greatly expanded in a $1.4 billion reconstruction project that began in June 2003. Metro would be ensured access for its large fleet of express buses but would no longer have to pay to maintain the limited-access lanes. Toll revenues will make it possible to expand the network of lanes.

Minnesota and Washington State also are moving into the HOT lanes camp. Minnesota enacted new legislation in summer 2003 that permits the conversion of HOV lanes to HOT lanes. The first project, as recommended by a Value Pricing Task Force, will convert the HOV lanes on I-394. Washington's Transportation Commission directed the state DOT in January 2003 to study the feasibility of converting an existing HOV lane to HOT. In December, the state DOT decided to proceed with detailed planning for converting the SR167 HOV lanes to HOT lanes.

The nation's pioneer HOT lanes project, the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, California, had another price increase. The busiest hours of the week—eastbound on Thursday and Friday between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m.—will now cost motorists $5.50 instead of the previous $4.75. The August 1, 2003 increase is the seventh since the Express Lanes opened in December 1995.

Though political pressures led the Orange County Transportation Association (OCTA) to buy out the privately developed project effective January 1, 2004, the hopes of some officials that tolls could be reduced or eliminated have been dashed.

In addition to needing toll revenues to pay off more than $100 million in construction bonds, OCTA officials have come to appreciate the worth of the value pricing pioneered on these lanes. It's value pricing—increasingly higher rates during the busiest periods—that keeps the Express Lanes free-flowing and able to handle more vehicles/lane/hour at rush hour than the congested regular lanes.

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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