High-occupancy toll lanes reduce congestion

Critics concerned "Lexus lanes" constitute special treatment

News The Wall Street Journal June 25, 2007
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Faced with tight budgets and clogged highways, cities across the nation are getting creative in the fight against traffic congestion, with one concept—high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes—becoming increasingly popular, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

HOT lanes, which allow single drivers to pay a fee to use the carpool lane, came into existence about a decade ago as a response to traffic problems in Southern California and Houston. The idea is spreading across the U.S., with plans under way in more than a dozen cities and states, according to the Journal.

For example, Minnesota in 2005 started letting drivers on I-394 in Minneapolis pay tolls to use lanes previously reserved for carpools, buses and motorcycles. The tolls, based upon the amount of congestion, can vary from 25 cents to $8.

Amy Johnson, a civil engineering instructor in downtown Minneapolis, told the Journal she “felt like a prisoner of the highways” when her commute could take up to an hour each way, but she now only travels about 12 minutes each way.

While the tolls now cost Johnson $40 a month, she told the Journal that “the cost is minimal compared with the benefits,” such as being able to work later and still arrive home in time to take care of her two kids.

Not everyone is excited about the idea of HOT lanes, however. Critics refer to them as “Lexus lanes,” allowing drivers with more resources to purchase special treatment on roads that were built using fuel taxes paid by everyone, the newspaper reported.

"It would do more good for more people if those lanes were available to every motorist at all times," according to Dawn Duffy, a spokeswoman at AAA Minneapolis.

Hennepin County, Minn., Commissioner Linda Koblick, who helped state transportation officials develop the I-394 project, also worried at first that express lanes would cater mostly to drivers "paying an extra $5 just to get there faster, because they have the money and they can," she told the newspaper. She changed her mind after a visit to Southern California, where she saw "housewives in minivans having to pick their kids up from day care," the Journal reported.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a plan to discourage drivers from entering parts of Manhattan by charging them $8 a day, and using the proceeds to improve subways and buses. Likewise, ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., are charging trucks $100 extra for each cargo container picked up or delivered at the docks Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., giving cars more room during rush hours.

Officials in Georgia announced last month that new lanes or roads must include some type of pay-to-drive pricing scheme. Public response so far has been encouraging, a spokeswoman said, according to the Journal.

"The congestion problem is bad and getting worse, and we aren't in the position where we can dismiss possible solutions that involve changing the way we pay for travel," said Tim Lomax, research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute of Texas A&M University in College Station, according to the newspaper. Charging more to use special lanes "is democracy in transportation. You get to vote every day with your pocketbook."

According to supporters, HOT lanes improve on the concept of carpool lanes, which failed to catch on as much as anticipated. Toll revenue typically covers the expense of adding a HOT lane onto a traditional high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, which is just a few million dollars, the paper reported. Under federal rules, single-occupant vehicles may use HOV lanes as long as tolls are charged.

HOT lanes are monitored by sensors in the pavement that measure the number of cars and their speed. When traffic begins to slow, computers increase the toll to discourage other cars from entering the lanes. Large digital signs display toll amounts, which are debited from an electronic smart card inside the driver's vehicle. Carpoolers, buses and motorcycles can still use the lane free of charge.

Karen Stuart, the mayor of Broomfield, Colo., and a consultant for an engineering firm in Denver, uses HOT lanes that opened last year on I-25 to avoid traffic jams, giving her an extra 30 minutes at work rather than stuck in traffic, the paper reported. "I'm removed from the hectic merging, converging and stop-and-go traffic in the regular lanes," Stuart told the newspaper. She skips her usual $3.50 Starbucks Grande Caffe Latte to help offset the cost of the HOT lanes.

Many of the nine cities competing for $1.1 billion in federal aid to fight congestion have proposed charging tolls that rise and fall based on traffic volume. Winners will be announced by mid-August.

Peter Samuel, editor of Toll Roads Newsletter, estimates about 200 miles of express lanes are being planned for some of the nation’s worst-moving highways, the Journal reported. San Diego is spending $1.7 billion to expand its current HOT lanes, the newspaper reported.

In Minnesota, tolls increase when traffic in the express lanes is moving slower than 50 miles per hour. The price shown on the overhead sign just before entering the lane is what the driver pays, even if the price climbs after that. Drivers who aren’t carpooling and try to take advantage of HOT lanes without an electronic tag in their car can be fined $142 or more, according to the newspaper.

Barb Green, an accounts-payable employee for a food concession at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, told the paper she has paid as much as $6 to use the express lane when traffic was particularly heavy. Paying extra is worth it, she said, since it gets her home to disabled husband sooner. Another benefit she discovered: she burns about a quarter of a tank of gas a week, compared to a half-tank in the regular lanes.

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