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Express Toll Lanes’ Expanding Track Record

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With the opening of Virginia’s I-395 Express Lanes now open up to the Potomac River, its worth asking: “How many express toll lane projects are in operation in the United States today?”

As of mid-summer, according to a tally provided by the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association’s TollMiner database, there were 51 such projects. Texas has the most (18), followed by California (9), Florida (5), Georgia and Virginia (4 each), Colorado and Minnesota (3 each), Washington (2) and Maryland, North Carolina, and Utah (1 each).
Some of these projects were simple, low-cost conversions of existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. An increasing number of projects are lane additions, requiring serious capital investment. For these projects, a growing trend is issuing toll revenue bonds, sometimes by a state agency (as in Riverside County, CA) but more commonly by a long-term public-private partnership (P3) entity. In my July 2018 column in Public Works Financing, I reported that Fitch Ratings has assigned (low) investment-grade ratings (BBB) to most such bonds, except for the 24-year-old SR 91 ETLs in Orange County, CA, whose revenue bonds are rated A+. That’s because they went through the Great Recession with a revenue decline of only 12 percent and recovered nicely thereafter. Most of the other ETLs opened after that period and have not yet been tested by a recession.

The positive track record is leading to the ongoing expansion of ETLs, with more states considering this approach to dealing with serious freeway congestion. One of these states is Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker in August said that adding optional priced lanes would be a good idea to deal with Boston-area congestion that has reached a “tipping point.” His Transportation Secretary, Stephanie Pollack, said their DOT will do a feasibility study on this in 2020.

Recent new project announcements have included the planned start of construction to add ETLs to the 101 freeway in San Mateo County, CA; Georgia DOT promising release of a request for quotation (RFQ) for the Georgia 400 ETL project in first-quarter 2020, and several ETL projects either planned or under construction in the Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL metro area. Also in Florida, the Turnpike has opened ETLs on its SR 528 toll road in the Orlando metro area.

Extensions of existing ETLs are under way in at least six states, as follows:

  • California: plans are moving forward for more ETLs on SR 60, SR 91, and I-215;
  • Florida: construction continues on extending the I-95 ETLs northward from Ft. Lauderdale to West Palm Beach;
  • Texas: Austin’s existing MoPac ETLs have been greenlighted for a southward extension;
  • Utah: a project extending the existing I-15 ETLs is under way;
  • Virginia: extensions ETLs on I-95 north (as I-395) to the DC line and south to Fredericksburg are under way, with the former now open; and,
  • Washington: a major project under way to add ETLs to I-405 from Renton to Bellevue, as a southerly extension of the existing ETLs going north from Bellevue.

There are ETL problems and conflicts here and there, but I will save those for a future commentary.
A version of this commentary appears in Surface Transportation Newsletter #193.
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