News From the HOT Lane Front
High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes have made major gains over the summer, as federal, state and local officials endorsed either the concept or specific project proposals. These developments are part of a larger movement within the transportation community to embrace variable pricing as a serious policy tool, capable of financing new highway capacity, managing highway demand and providing "congestion insurance." While road pricing has long been a topic of discussion among academics and transportation researchers, and increasingly has been a subject of growing interest among federal and state transportation officials, it has only recently attracted the attention of congressional legislators and local elected officials. Rep. Mark Kennedy's (R-MN) FAST Act and the Administration's reauthorization proposal have given the concept of road pricing greater legitimacy. But, as the following report by Bob Poole, Director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Policy Institute, and your editor indicates, interest in HOT lanes and pricing is not confined to Washington. HOT lanes are catching fire across the country as their revenue-raising and congestion management potentials become recognized, and as evidence of their acceptance by highway users mounts.
The Washington DC metropolitan region has seen the highest level of interest and activity in high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. An unsolicited proposal from Fluor Daniel would add two HOT lanes in each direction to a 12-mile stretch of the Washington Beltway (I-495) in Northern Virginia. The proposal received a formal endorsement of Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board in July. Under the state's Public-Private Transportation Act, the next step is for Fluor Daniel to submit a detailed proposal for the $630 million project which will be evaluated in the ongoing Environmental Impact assessment. The project has strong local and state support. It has been unanimously endorsed by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and praised by VDOT Director Philip Shucet as "a shining example" of a public-private partnership. It also has received editorial support from The Washington Post and the Washington Times .
Another proposal, by a private sector consortium consisting of the Clark Construction Group, Shirley Contracting Company and Koch Performance Roads, Inc. seeks to increase the capacity of the highly congested I-95 in Northern Virginia, south of the Capital Beltway. The consortium proposes to add a third lane to the existing HOV lanes, extend them southward toward Fredericksburg, and convert the entire facility into a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) facility. Fees paid by solo users of the HOT lanes would be used to repay the debt incurred in the design and construction of the facility. The I-95 HOT lanes would be connected to the proposed Fluor Daniel-built HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway, thus laying foundation to a regional HOT Network.
Reinforcing these initiatives is a resolution by a newly formed alliance of the Northern Virginia business community with a specific mandate to champion HOT lanes. The resolution, the first of its kind, urges Virginia's elected representatives to "direct, encourage and provide the resources necessary for the Virginia Department of Transportation to solicit and evaluate proposals to effect value pricing and a network of HOT lanes in the region's major transportation corridors and other routes deemed suitable for HOT lanes."
Meanwhile, across the river in Maryland, Governor Robert L. Erlich has revived a state DOT study of variable pricing that had been earlier cancelled by Erlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening. Mr. Glendening pulled the rug out from under his own state transportation secretary who had initiated the pricing study, arguing that HOT lanes favor wealthy motorists. Governor Erlich has refused to view HOT lanes as a class issue, pointing to California's HOT lanes which motorists of all income levels use when saving time is critical to them. The Maryland DOT study is evaluating the feasibility of HOT lanes in several corridors, including I-270, I-495 (Capital Beltway), I-95 and US 50. Variable pricing and HOT lanes also are being considered for the proposed Intercounty Connector (ICC) which Gov. Erlich and his transportation secretary Robert L. Flanagan view as a potential candidate for toll financing. The tolls could provide a revenue stream sufficient to support bonding for one third of the estimated $1.7 billion facility, according to Secretary Flanagan.
The federal Value Pricing Pilot program is supporting work on several HOT lane projects. A one million dollar grant will help Colorado DOT plan the conversion of HOV lanes on I-25N to HOT lanes. Florida DOT will do detailed traffic and revenue studies of a potential HOV-to-HOT conversion on I-95 in Miami. And Texas DOT will study the addition of HOT lanes to a 15-mile section of the Northeast Corridor in San Antonio, in addition to its planned HOT lanes on the widened LBJ Freeway in North Dallas.
Also in Texas, a HOT lanes network has been proposed in Houston. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels has 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- I-10 and US 290-have already 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. Metro would continue to have access for its large fleet of express buses, but would no longer have to pay to maintain the limited-access lanes.
August saw the release of a report by the Atlanta Value Pricing Advisory Task Force, a two-year effort to look at the possible role of pricing in addressing metro Atlanta's severe traffic congestion. The report concludes that "HOT/managed lanes... hold the greatest promise for implementing value pricing in this region at this time." The task force looked at adding HOT lanes on 17 miles of Georgia state highway 400 north of the I-285 Perimeter highway, shifting from flat rate to variable pricing on the tolled portion of Georgia 400, and adding HOT lanes to Georgia state highway 316. Georgia DOT is also looking into the possibility of a network of HOT lanes on the entire statewide freeway system.
In California's San Francisco Bay Area, the Valley Transit Authority (VTA) is considering HOT lanes for several Santa Clara County freeways, after its plan to expand the fledgling light rail system was derailed and the multi-billion dollar extension of the BART rail system to San Jose faces lengthy delays. An initial HOT lane feasibility study is likely to be approved before the end of the year, probably including portions of US 101, I-880, and SR-87. Meanwhile, nearby Alameda County is getting closer to a "go" decision on building planned HOV lanes on the congested Sunol Grade on I-680 as HOT lanes, following a survey of local residents that showed strong support for the HOT lanes alternative.
Minnesota and Washington State also are moving into the HOT lanes camp. Minnesota enacted new legislation this summer 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. In Washington State, last January the State Transportation Commission directed the state DOT to study the feasibility of converting an existing HOV lane to a HOT lane. The study, looking at the HOV lanes on SR 167, is now underway, and the Commission is expected to decide in December whether or not to implement such a conversion.Finally, the nation's pioneer HOT lanes project - the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, California- had another price increase. Though political pressures led to the buy-out of the privately developed project by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), the hopes of some officials that tolls could be reduced or eliminated have been dashed. In addition to needing toll revenues to pay off the over $100 million in construction bonds, OCTA officials have now come to appreciate the worth of the value pricing pioneered on these lanes. It is variable pricing-charging higher rates during the busiest periods-that keeps the Express Lanes free-flowing and able to handle more vehicles per lane/hour in peak period than the congested regular lanes. The busiest hours of the week- eastbound on Thursday and Friday between 4 and 6 PM- will now cost motorists $5.50 instead of the previous $4.75. The August 1 st increase is the seventh since the Express Lanes opened in December 1995.
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