In my June column in Public Works Financing, I wrote about two ongoing developments in the evolution of priced managed lanes. First, a growing number of projects now require at least three people in the vehicle to qualify for free passage; 10 such projects are in operation, with more under construction (such as the I-77 project in Charlotte). Second, there’s a newer trend to exempt only buses and registered vanpools (i.e., super HOVs) from paying tolls, with three such projects in operation and a new one about to open (Mopac, in Austin, TX).
There are two reasons for these changes, as more experience is gained with priced managed lanes. To effectively use variable pricing to keep traffic flowing smoothly, nearly all the vehicles using the managed lanes must be affected by those prices. Policies like those on several California projects that give a majority of vehicles free passage (as HOV-2s or alternative-fuel vehicles) risk traffic flow breakdown, defeating the purpose and value of variable pricing. The second reason is that large metro areas increasingly intend to build out seamless networks of managed lanes. But most of the lane-miles in these networks, of necessity, will be new construction. And for that to be affordable, there needs to be robust toll revenue, on which financing of the projects can be based.
So I’ll venture to say that the days of HOV-2 “HOT lanes” are numbered, and from here on out, we will be seeing primarily true express toll lanes, in which everybody except very high-occupancy vehicles (buses, primarily) will be paying variable tolls.
Atlanta is a good example, as columnist Kyle Wingfield noted recently in his blog for theAtlanta Journal Constitution. He pointed out that Georgia DOT’s plan to spend about $11 billion over the next decade adding express toll lanes to the metro Atlanta freeway system is an $11 billion investment in transit guideways—if the region’s transit agencies have the good sense to take full advantage of the emerging uncongested network.
Austin, as noted above, is about to open the northbound lane of its new Mopac express toll lanes project, which will be free only to buses, not HOVs. And Capital Metro is planning new express bus routes to take advantage of Mopac and several other express toll lane projects that are under way in the region. The most ambitious of these would spend $4 billion revamping congested I-35 through the metro area, including express toll lanes that, again, would be free only for Capital Metro express buses.
In Charlotte, I’m pleased to report that the state Senate did not take up the bill passed by the state House that would have cancelled the concession agreement under which the I-77 express toll lanes are already under construction. Like most new-construction projects, this one will require a minimum of three persons in the vehicle to obtain free passage, consistent with the project financing for the $647 million project being based on toll revenues.
Chicago last month saw the opening of reversible express toll lanes on the Chicago Skyway, which is being managed, operated, and improved under a 99-year toll concession. The new express lanes will use all-electronic tolling and will exclude trucks. The natural extension of the project would be converting to variable tolling the reversible (non-tolled) express lanes on the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90), that begin at the northern end of the Skyway. And that project, in turn, could jump-start long-discussed plans to add express toll lanes to other portions of Chicagoland’s very congested freeway network. Similar non-tolled express lanes operate on the Kennedy Expressway, and could also be converted to variable pricing.
The Dallas/Fort Worth metro area, with express toll lanes in operation on both the LBJ Expressway (I-635) and the North Tarrant Express, has another such project under construction on US 360. A joint effort of the North Texas Tollway Authority, the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and Texas DOT, the $330 million project is adding two express toll lanes each way over a nearly 10-mile stretch of this expressway. A second phase to extend the new lanes would bring the total cost to $604 million.
Houston is under way on the first of its managed lanes to be developed as a toll concession. The project, close to beginning construction, will add 10 miles of express toll lanes each way in the median of SH 288, from Brazoria County to US 59 in Houston itself.
A new entrant into the express toll lanes field could be Little Rock, AR. The Arkansas Highway & Transportation Dept. is considering a major widening of I-30, from I-530 in Little Rock to Benton, home of Walmart’s corporate headquarters. The Little Rock MPO, Metroplan, has a regional high-occupancy toll lanes study under way.
In Tampa, FL, the long-running controversy over Florida DOT’s plans for a $3.5 billion Tampa Bay Express network of express toll lanes picked up important endorsements in June. Local transit agency HART “unequivocally” supported TBX, and was followed by an endorsement from the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce. The following week, the Hillsborough MPO voted 12-4 to support the project, including it in the MPO’s long-range transportation plan.
Finally, the congestion-plagued Washington, DC metro area got some good news early in July. Virginia DOT won a $165 million federal FASTLANE grant, which will cover its share of already-approved projects under which concession company Transurban will extend the I-95 express toll lanes 10 miles further south toward Fredericksburg and about 7 miles north along I-395 to the Potomac River. And across the river, the Southern Maryland Transportation Alliance is working to build support for relieving congestion on I-270 by adding two express toll lanes each way, to be toll-financed under a P3 concession agreement. If this project goes forward, it would yield another link in the emerging express toll lanes network in the metro DC region.
(This article first ran in the July issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)