High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes

Cities looking to lessen congestion on their highways are increasingly considering high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes as a way to solve traffic issues, reduce air pollution, and increase transportation budgets. HOT lanes are free for carpoolers, but single-occupancy vehicles must pay a toll. They are already in place in southern California, Minnesota and Houston, and under construction in South Florida.

Supply and demand is perhaps the most basic economic principle. Cell phone companies charge their customers more in peak times, restaurants offer early bird specials, and theaters give discounts for matinees. 

This principle--the backbone of a market economy--is being used to help manage gridlock on our nation’s roads. High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes are increasingly being considered to better control the flow of traffic and reduce the amount of time people spend idling in their cars. Instead of focusing on the supply side by creating new roads, transportation engineers, city planners and governments are switching gears and focusing on demand.

What Are HOT Lanes?

HOT lanes combine two of the more effective highway management tools: value pricing and lane management (restricted access to designated highway lanes based on occupancy or vehicle type). The idea behind them is simple: drive for free in a HOT lane if you have enough people in your car or van, or pay a premium to use the lane if you don’t meet the minimum passenger requirements.

Buses travel in HOT lanes for free, as do emergency transportation vehicles and motorcycles. Traditional lanes always remain available for folks who don’t want to pay for the privilege. The fees collected from HOT lanes provide a source of government revenue for road improvements, and have the added benefit of making people understand the value of moving in congestion-free traffic. HOT lanes also provide incentives for people to use buses. Indeed, the hope is that HOT lanes will boost mass transit services. “When you’re sitting there in your car with your coffee stuck in a traffic jam watching the buses whip by … well, that’s a great marketing tool,” said Stephen Reich at the University of South Florida Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa.

Money, space constraints, and environmental concerns are pushing aside the historical interest in roads in favor of more innovative ideas like congestion pricing and HOT lanes, Reich explained. Many HOT lanes are converted from highway medians or high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. However, HOT lanes are not one-size-fits-all. Decisions like how many people must be in a car and whether financial breaks should be given to owners of fuel-efficient hybrids are made at the local level.

Beginnings in California

The first HOT lane was SR 91 in Orange County, Calif. A four-lane, 10-mile stretch of toll road was built in the median of California’s Riverside Freeway between the Orange/Riverside County line and the Costa Mesa Freeway (State Route 55). Since it opened nearly 15 years ago, more than 64 million vehicle trips have been made, saving customers more than 32 million hours of commuting time.

Unlike some other states, HOT lanes, California’s SR 91 lanes do not have variable dynamic pricing, according to Orange County Transit Authority Interim Executive Chief Officer James Kenan. The Orange County Transit Authority turned away a federal grant that would have allowed the roads to convert to dynamic pricing, in which drivers don’t know the costs of the lanes in advance. “They want to know the toll before they enter that toll lane,” Kenan said, noting that when OCTA asked its customers about dynamic pricing they rejected the idea.

To ensure that the roads are appropriately priced, charges are reviewed quarterly and adjusted to ensure the smooth flow of traffic, he said. The highest cost for the 10-mile stretch is levied on Thursday afternoons between 4 and 5 p.m., when commuters are leaving their jobs and traveling eastbound to bedroom communities. On average, 2,900 cars travel the lanes between those hours. In the first quarter of 2009, workers eager to return home paid $9.55 for that stretch of congestion-free lanes. Conversely, the least expensive time to travel on the road is between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. The HOT lanes for westbound traffic cost $1.25 in the first quarter of 2009 and have averaged about 10 cars during that hour, according to Kenan.

The Future in Florida

There are similar success stories for HOT lanes in Minneapolis (I-394), San Diego (I-15) and Houston (I-10). So perhaps it’s no surprise that South Florida, with its notoriously congested arteries (a Texas Transportation Institute Report released in 2007 showed that drivers in Miami wasted 50 hours and 35 gallons of gas sitting in traffic in 2005) has turned to the use of HOT lanes to help solve its traffic woes. 

Interstate 95 Express in Miami-Dade County is being constructed in two phases and, when complete, will offer HOT lanes for northbound and southbound traffic on I-95 from SR 112 to the Golden Glades areas. Eventually 95 Express HOT lanes will also connect Miami to Ft. Lauderdale. In Miami-Dade, the approach is to offer toll-free options for carpool drivers as well as hybrid car drivers who are willing to register with South Florida Commuter Services. Jennifer Ryan, marketing director for South Florida Commuter Services, said that since summer 2008, 2,712 hybrid car owners have registered with the agency to use the lanes, as have 1,206 carpools and 212 vanpools.

At the Ft. Lauderdale end of the project, plans call for three reversible HOT lanes in the median along 10.5 miles of I-595 running east-west across populous Broward County. Congestion pricing will be used, but the amount of the tolls hasn’t yet been decided by Florida transportation officials. In all, the Broward project will cost about $1.8 billion. Construction is expected to begin this summer and be completed by 2014, according to Barbara Kelleher, public information officer for the DOT’s offices in Ft. Lauderdale.

Early buzz on the HOT lanes in Ft. Lauderdale has been positive. “There hasn’t been a pushback,” said Kelleher, adding that the construction project actually has gotten local businesses excited that the project will bring new jobs. “The focus really has been jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Not for Everybody

While congestion pricing is the hot solution for some cities, it’s not the silver bullet for traffic flow problems everywhere and, politically, can still prove a tough sell. 

When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried a congestion pricing corridor for most trucks and cars entering the city, he was soundly beaten back. The initiative was modeled after one in London, which adopted a congestion pricing scheme in 2003 as a way to reduce traffic congestion and raise revenues to fund transport improvements. Bloomberg maintained that congestion pricing would reduce traffic congestion in the city by 6.3 percent and raise $491 million for mass transit there. But the plan--which Bloomberg sought to fund in part with a $354.5 million grant from the federal government--was never approved by the General Assembly.

New York State Assemblyman David McDonough is a member of the Committee on Transportation and opposed Bloomberg’s proposal. McDonough said that while he understands the congestion problems facing New York City, he felt the proposal would have been too big a financial burden on area residents. As successful congestion pricing initiatives are designed, built and implemented, however, the future may hold more options for overly congested commutes across the country.

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