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Elevated Managed Lanes Might Work Here in Virginia

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(Publisher’s note: This article bring all sorts of ideas to mind on where double decking roads might work here in Virginia. Two quick suggestions in Northern Virginia would be Route 66 inside the Beltway and Route 1 in Alexandria and southern Fairfax County.)

The “freeway revolt” in the 1970s and ’80s left an incomplete network of expressways in many urban areas. And with today’s urban development and very high land values, condemning enough right of way to fill in the missing links seems both economically and politically infeasible. But that’s not the only alternative. Creative transportation planners in recent years have proposed either elevated or tunneled alternatives as (admittedly costly) alternatives for these missing links.

Far less costly than tunneling is elevated construction using state-of-the art techniques (such as pre-casting segments of roadway and erecting them outward in both directions from pillars). That method was used in 2006 for the elevated reversible express toll lanes on the Selmon Expressway in Tampa. Developed and operated by the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA), the project was nicknamed “six lanes on six feet.” That’s because the three reversible lanes (inbound to Tampa in the morning, outbound in the afternoon) would otherwise have required a six-lane expressway. And the entire facility rests on pillars just six feet wide, installed in the median of the Selmon Expressway.

After driving on those new express toll lanes just after they opened, I wrote about this project as a prototype for adding express toll lanes to numerous congested freeways, as well as for filling in missing links where there is only a surface street in a corridor where an expressway is warranted by traffic demand. And I’m pleased to report that two more elevated express toll lane projects are now in prospect for the Tampa Bay Area. Both would be built above congested surface arterials, but they differ considerably in specifics.

The first has been proposed as Florida’s first toll concession project by a team led by a local developer and Spanish toll road company OHL Infrastructure. It would extend 33 miles east-west above SR 54 in Pasco County north of Tampa, linking coastal highway US 19 with the north-south Suncoast Parkway toll road, then further east to I-75, and a bit further to U.S. 301. When no competing proposal was submitted to Florida DOT, the agency accepted the team’s proposal and has begun discussing a 45-year lease along the SR 54 right of way. The plan has considerable support from transportation planners, but NIMBY opposition has been organized, calling the project the “Pasco Fiasco.” No official cost estimate has been released, but one newspaper account put it at $2 billion (about $15 million per lane-mile for the four-lane facility, quite reasonable for elevated lanes).

The other elevated tollway is much shorter. South of Tampa, it would link coastal US 19 with I-275, elevated above 118th Avenue in Pinellas County, with an extension to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport. This one would be an FDOT project, and though the initial $338 million construction cost would come mostly from federal and state sources, the new lanes would be operated as express toll lanes to keep them uncongested. The Tampa Bay Times, while acknowledging the benefits of the improved mobility the project would provide, has come out against tolling, and favors “at least” including a dedicated bus lane as part of the project.

That illustrates a complete misunderstanding of variable pricing as a congestion-control tool. The elevated express toll lanes will function as virtual exclusive bus lanes, since the pricing will keep the lanes uncongested. As far as bus service is concerned, it will be just as good as having an empty lane just for buses. Clearly, FDOT has an educational task ahead of it in St. Petersburg, but it can point to the huge success of express bus service on its I-95 Express Lanes on I-95 in Miami.

(This article first ran in Surface Transportation Innovations)

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