Thursday, June 21, 2007

The best 'democracy in transportation' money can buy.

Paying for VIP Treatment in a Traffic Jam

More Cities Give Drivers Access To Express Lanes -- for a Fee; A Privilege for the Lexus Set?

June 21, 2007

The Wall Street Journal
Copyright 2007

Ann Johnson used to have no idea how long it would take to get to work in downtown Minneapolis on clogged Interstate 394. "I felt like a prisoner of the highways," she says.

That changed when state officials started in 2005 letting drivers pay tolls to use lanes previously limited to carpools, buses and motorcycles. The catch: Tolls range from 25 cents to $8, varying with the amount of congestion in order to keep drivers zipping along at close to 55 miles an hour.

As a result, the daily commuting grind for Ms. Johnson, a civil engineering instructor, lasts just about 12 minutes each way, compared with as long as an hour each way before. While she used to drive free on the regular lanes, tolls now cost her $40 a month, but she can work later and still get home in time to take care of her two kids. "The cost is minimal compared with the benefits," she says.

High-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes -- which allow single drivers to pay to use the car-pool lane -- have been around for about a decade, starting on nightmarish roads in Southern California and Houston. Now the idea is picking up speed across the U.S., with plans under way in more than a dozen cities and states. If all of the express lanes are built, millions of American commuters could face less driving misery every day.

But some critics derisively refer to the express lanes as "Lexus lanes" that allow drivers with deeper pockets to buy special treatment on highways built using fuel taxes collected from everyone. "It would do more good for more people if those lanes were available to every motorist at all times," complains Dawn Duffy, a spokeswoman at AAA Minneapolis.

The trend is a sign that increasingly choked highways and tight road-building budgets are forcing transportation planners to try some bold ideas. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to discourage drivers from entering parts of Manhattan by charging them $8 a day, with proceeds used to improve subways and buses. Ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., are giving cars more room during rush hours by charging trucks $100 extra for each cargo container picked up or delivered at the docks Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

In Georgia, where lanes on Interstates 75 and 85 through downtown Atlanta were narrowed to squeeze through more cars, state officials announced last month that new lanes or roads must include some type of pay-to-drive pricing scheme. Public response so far has been encouraging, a spokeswoman says.

Many of the nine cities competing for $1.1 billion in federal aid to fight congestion have proposed charging tolls that rise and fall based on traffic volume. Winners will be announced by mid-August.

"The congestion problem is bad and getting worse, and we aren't in the position where we can dismiss possible solutions that involve changing the way we pay for travel," says Tim Lomax, research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute of Texas A&M University in College Station. Charging extra to use special lanes "is democracy in transportation. You get to vote every day with your pocketbook."

Supporters say HOT lanes are a way to improve on carpool lanes, which failed to catch on as much as hoped. Piggybacking a HOT lane onto a traditional high-occupancy vehicle lane can cost just a few million dollars, with toll revenue typically covering the expense. Under federal rules, single-occupant vehicles may use HOV lanes as long as tolls are charged.

Meanwhile, the economic principle of price elasticity that determines when tolls rise and fall for HOT lanes sometimes doesn't work when every-man-for-himself gridlock-survival instincts kick in. John Doan, former program director of the Minneapolis express lanes, says one commuter told him she moved into the lanes whenever tolls were at their highest. The reason: If so many drivers were using them, then it must be a good idea.

HOT lanes work like this: Sensors in the pavement track the number of cars and their driving speed. When traffic slows, computers increase the toll to discourage other cars from entering the lanes. Toll amounts are displayed on huge digital signs and debited from an electronic smart card inside the driver's vehicle. At the height of rush hour, drivers can pay around $3 to $5. Carpoolers, buses and motorcycles still use the lane with no toll.

"I'm removed from the hectic merging, converging and stop-and-go traffic in the regular lanes," brags Karen Stuart, the mayor of Broomfield, Colo., and a consultant for an engineering firm in Denver. She uses HOT lanes that opened last year on I-25 to zip through traffic jams, making her feel safer and giving her an extra 30 minutes at work. To help offset the cost, she skips her usual $3.50 Starbucks Grande Caffe Latte.

About 200 miles of express lanes are being planned for some of the worst-moving highways, estimates Peter Samuel, editor of Toll Roads Newsletter. San Diego is spending $1.7 billion to expand the length and width of its existing HOT lanes.

The routes most frequently adapted for special toll lanes usually carry 100,000 to 250,000 vehicles a day. While only a small percentage of drivers use the HOT lanes, those cars leave more capacity for cars in regular lanes.

In Minnesota, tolls increase when traffic in the express lanes is moving slower than 50 mph. Drivers pay whatever is shown on the overhead sign just before they enter the lane, even if the price climbs after that. Solo drivers who use HOT lanes without paying -- by driving in the lane without an electronic tag in their car -- can be fined $142 or more.

Linda Koblick, a Hennepin County, Minn., commissioner who helped state transportation officials develop the I-394 project, worried at first that express lanes would cater mostly to drivers "paying an extra $5 just to get there faster, because they have the money and they can," she says. Her mind was changed after a visit to Southern California, where she saw "housewives in minivans having to pick their kids up from day care."

Barb Green, an accounts-payable employee for a food concession at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, has paid as much as $6 to use the express lane when traffic was particularly brutal. Paying extra is worth it, she says, getting her home sooner to her disabled husband. She's also discovered another benefit: she burns about a quarter of a tank of gas a week, down from a half-tank in the slower-moving regular lanes.

Write to Daniel Machalaba at

© 2007 The Wall Street Journal:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE