Escape That Traffic Jam -- for a Fee --

Escape That Traffic Jam -- for a Fee

High-Occupancy Toll — HOT — Lanes Attract Users, but Are They "Lexus Lanes"?

Peter Samuel writes an online newsletter about the toll-highway business. But he's far from a dispassionate observer when it comes to HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes, a spreading innovation that provides commuters with an escape valve from urban traffic jams — for a hefty fee.

Traffic authorities are likely to install HOT lanes on I-270 north of Washington, D.C., all the way out to the exit at suburban Frederick, Maryland, where Samuel lives. "I'd like to dash down there and pay $3 or $4 as a toll and get a guaranteed easy ride to appointments in D.C.," said Samuel, editor of Toll Roads News. "For me, it's even the uncertainty that there will be congestion that makes things difficult."

As automotive traffic continues to grow in America's cities — and the infrastructure sags and creaks under the heavier burden — "congestion pricing" is emerging as an increasingly favored tool of traffic engineers and policy makers. The idea is simple: Many drivers will pay significant extra fees for access to where they want or need to go, even if they grumble about the cost.

Urban planners and politicians can use the huge extra revenues to fix and expand roads, bridges and ramps, beyond the revenues that the nation's toll roads already supply. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, has proposed charging an $8 congestion fee for drivers who enter Lower Manhattan as a way of helping to pay for improvements to support expected further population growth.

"There's simply not enough funding around to build enough capacity to build our way out of the congestion," said Jack Finn, senior vice president of HNTB, a Kansas City-based engineering-consulting firm that does much of the HOT-lane construction.

Some Commuters Like It HOT

HOT lanes sweeten the concept of congestion pricing for drivers by raising and lowering toll prices throughout the day to guarantee a timely flow of traffic in the designated lanes, at or close to the speed limit. Amounts range from as little as 25 cents to as much as $8 at peak hours in some HOT lanes.

"They're good for traffic and good for drivers," said Joseph DiJohn, a research director at the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "They manage congestion and provide revenue for infrastructure. And they reduce travel time for the user. If done properly, they're a win-win-win."

Often, HOT lanes simply allow single drivers to pay to use historically underutilized carpool lanes. This keeps their conversion costs down to just a few million dollars and makes them very popular with longtime solo drivers. "A lot of drivers have seen carpool lanes that have been underutilized, and it makes them angry, so they were glad to see them become HOT lanes," DiJohn said.

Sensors in the HOT-lane pavement track the number of vehicles and their speeds, and then computers apply good old-fashioned price elasticity to post gradually changing toll amounts on huge digital signs. If a driver enters the HOT lane, the toll is electronically debited from an account.

HOT lanes work best on roads with 100,000-250,000 vehicles a day. And while a relatively small percentage of drivers end up using HOT lanes, they also help relieve the strain on regular lanes. The U.S. government is encouraging traffic planners to consider HOT lanes as they jockey for federal highway aid to fight congestion.

They began with an experiment on the endemically clogged SR-91 in Orange County, California, about a decade ago. Now, Finn said, the two HOT lanes on that stretch carry more than 50 percent of SR-91's traffic during peak hours, at 55 mph, while the four regular lanes remain bumper-to-bumper.

Today, HOT lanes have spread to more than a dozen cities and states, speeding the commutes of millions of Americans every day. Already, other HOT lanes are in operation in metro Denver for eight miles of I-25; in Houston for 20 miles of I-10 and 13.5 miles of US-290; Minneapolis for 11 miles of I-294; Salt Lake City for 38 miles of I-15; and San Diego for eight miles of I-15.

And, Samuel estimated, about 200 more miles are being planned for some of the nation's other slow-moving highways, including I-95 in metro Baltimore; Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Pittsburgh; SR-167 in Seattle; and I-205 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Inequity Issue Makes Some HOT Under the Collar

But HOT lanes have their critics as well, one of whom dubbed them "Lexus lanes" — a nickname that has stuck. Others lambaste them for requiring drivers to "pay to play." Their argument is that HOT lanes price lower-income drivers out of the market, creating a new privilege for well-heeled commuters. The American Automobile Association regards all tolls as a regressive tax on motorists.

Actual surveys of HOT-lane users, however, have found a wide variance in socioeconomic status. Lower-income drivers were actually most likely to say that HOT tolls were fair in a recent survey about SR-91 in California.

Such a stance makes sense, HOT advocates said. For example, if a manual laborer risks being late for his job for a third day in a row, he'll probably become an eager user of a HOT lane that day, despite the fee. Or a mother might be a good HOT-lane candidate if the penalty for picking up her child late from a day-care center would be greater than the HOT toll.

Moreover, DiJohn compared whatever "discrimination" is involved in HOT lanes to other socially accepted methods of congestion pricing such as early-bird specials at restaurants and higher midday electricity rates.

Another reason some reject any inequity-based argument against HOT lanes: "If you're on the highway, you're going to pay either with time or money," Finn said. "And some days your time is going to be more valuable to you than your money, no matter who you are."

Also, HOT lanes give a pass to buses and other mass-transit vehicles. "Those are the vehicles that economically disadvantaged people are most likely to use anyway," noted Jianling Li, associate professor of transportation studies at the University of Texas-Arlington. "So they're using the HOT lanes, too.

"Anyway, everybody's stuck in traffic," Li continued. "If some people are willing to pay to get out of the free lanes, then everyone benefits."

Dale Buss is a journalist based near Detroit.

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