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Reason Foundation

Seattle's Toll Lanes Aren't Lexus Lanes

HOT lanes are reducing congestion and helping all commuters

Shirley Ybarra
August 24, 2009

Critics often try to portray toll lanes as “Lexus lanes,” claiming they only benefit a few wealthy drivers who can afford to pay tolls. However, a recent report in Washington State provides evidence to the contrary, showing the toll lanes have helped all commuters.

In May 2008, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) converted the carpool, or high-occupancy vehicle lanes, on SR 167 in the Seattle-area to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.   The toll lanes run north/south on SR 167 between Renton and Auburn, approximately 10 miles in each direction and use variable-pricing for single-occupant vehicles. The tolls go up at rush-hour, when traffic is heavy, and decrease when traffic is light. Toll rates vary from 50 cents to $9, with the average toll being about $1. 

The results of a recent WSDOT study show that mobility in both the general purpose and the HOT lanes improved as a result of the HOT lanes project. For example, the enabling legislation that paved the way for the toll lanes required the HOT lanes to maintain average traffic speeds during peak traffic hours (7 a.m. – 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. – 5 p.m.) of at least 45 miles per hour, 90 percent of the time. The HOT lanes exceeded this requirement, achieving the required speeds 99.2 percent of the time. 

Additionally, the volume of traffic in both the regular lanes and the HOT lanes increased.  The general, non-tolled lanes, carried three percent more traffic in the morning rush-hour period – at 10 percent higher speeds.

Concerned with the “Lexus Lanes” claims, WSDOT has surveyed the population’s attitude towards the toll lanes. In 2005, 61 percent of respondents were concerned that “HOT lanes are unfair to those with low incomes.” But in 2008, after just three months of usage, only 19 percent of people thought the lanes were unfair. 

A May 2009 survey shows the majority of SR 167 HOT lane users are between 35 and 64 years-old with household incomes of $50,000 to $124,000. In Seattle, that income group would be considered “middle-class” by just about any standard.

In fact, over half the people using the toll lanes, make less than $100,000 – and 15 percent of toll lane users make less than $50,000 a year.

Income  (% of SR 167's Toll Road Customers)

And if you watch cars go by on the free-flowing toll lanes, you’ll see a lot of Chevrolets, Fords, Hondas and Toyotas. Less than 2 percent of the HOT lanes trips were made in a Lexus.

This is yet another survey that provides evidence that HOT lanes benefit all drivers, not just a wealthy few. Hopefully, more regions will utilize toll lanes and congestion pricing to give residents a way out of gridlock and improve their mobility.

Shirley Ybarra is senior transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation and previously served as Secretary of Transportation in Virginia.


Shirley Ybarra is Senior Transportation Policy Analyst


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