There is encouraging news about current and proposed express toll lanes (Editor’s note: these are called HOT lanes – High Occupancy Toll lanes — here in Virginia) projects in California, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and Washington State.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed AB 194, which authorizes Caltrans and regional transportation agencies to develop, finance, operate, and maintain new-capacity express toll lanes (ETLs) with no limits on the number of projects or time frame. That opens the door for toll-revenue-based financing and public-private partnerships (P3s) for the state’s major metro areas. In San Diego, the board of the San Diego Association of Governments last month approved a new long-range plan that includes a long-discussed network of express toll lanes, and a larger network is under way in the San Francisco Bay Area, based on the long-range transportation plan of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. In southern California, the county transportation agencies of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties all have various ETL projects under construction or in the planning stage. The Orange County Transportation Authority Board on Oct. 12th voted 13-3 that tolling and operational policies for the $1.7 billion express toll lanes on I-405 will be compatible with those in use for the past 20 years on the SR 91 Express Lanes—the world’s first ETLs.
In Florida, new projects are in the planning or discussion stage in both Tampa and Jacksonville. In the former, Florida DOT is holding community meetings to discuss plans for $3 billion of express toll lanes it is planning for I-4, I-75,and I-275. It has also proposed adding ETLs to another 22 miles of I-4, between Tampa and the Polk Parkway near Lakeland. In addition, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority is studying a westward extension of the successful elevated express toll lanes on its Selmon Expressway. Besides relieving congestion, the project would add capacity to an important hurricane evacuation route. FDOT is also studying adding ETLs to I-95 in Jacksonville, which would be the first such project in northern Florida.
In Atlanta, the initially controversial conversion of 16 miles of I-85 HOV lanes to ETLs continues to build traffic and revenue. On Nov. 10th, its dynamic toll rate reached a new high of $12 during the AM peak period. That is 75 cents/mile. While high in Atlanta, that is only half the peak rates sometimes being charged this fall on the I-95 ETLs in Miami, where the peak toll is now $10.50; since the existing phase 1 project is just seven miles long, that is $1.50 per mile, higher than has ever been charged on the original U.S. ETL project, the SR 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, California.
In Virginia, the three-year old ETLs on the Capital Beltway (I-495), which got off to a relatively slow start in traffic and revenue during their first year, have experienced major gains in 2015. For the September 2015 quarter, daily trips more than doubled (to 84,000) from the year before, and toll revenue, at $28 million, was also more than double than generated in the comparable quarter last year. The region’s third ETL project, on about 20 miles of I-66 outside the Beltway, has made tangible progress recently. The regional Transportation Planning Board voted last month to add the project to its long-range transportation plan, and the project was also approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. And on October 16th, VDOT identified the teams that have been shortlisted to develop the project, under three procurement alternatives. Three teams proposed bidding on the toll concession approach, and five proposed bidding on the design-build-maintain and design-build-alternative-technical-concepts approaches. Proposals are due Dec. 1st, after which VDOT will decide which procurement approach to use and issue an RFP to the teams pre-qualified for that approach.
Finally, the first month’s data on Washington State DOT’s $383 million, 17-mile express toll lanes project on I-405 are looking good. Commuters are trying the new lanes and finding that they deliver time savings in exchange for (so far) modest tolls, averaging $1.70 southbound and $1.60 northbound during the first month; peak-period commuters using the new lanes are saving 15 to 17 minutes—and enough of them are switching to the ETLs that congestion has been reduced in the general purpose lanes. WSDOT Tolling Director Craig Stone was asked if a similar future awaits I-5 through Seattle, a portion of which has non-tolled express lanes. Stone told Channel 5 news that “there is nothing planned for the immediate future”—but that project, in my view, would make a logical follow-on.
(This article first ran in the November issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)