Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Burned by HOT lanes

Driving solo? Don't rule out HOV lanes

Metro proposal would let motorists pay to share lanes with buses, carpools

July 25, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is proposing to convert its High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to High Occupancy-Toll lanes, where buses and carpools ride for free alongside toll-paying solo drivers.

Under a proposal from Metro to the Texas Department of Transportation, tolls would be collected electronically and increase with congestion to keep traffic moving, said Carlos Lopez, TxDOT director of traffic operations.

Metro spokesman George Smalley said agency officials were not available for comment Tuesday.

"The premise is to try to get every bit of capacity out of the HOV lanes," Lopez said. He said Metro proposed the idea to TxDOT several months ago "because they wanted to make sure that the HOV lanes kept their good travel time.

"When the two-plus lanes become crowded, you go to three-plus, and then you have this huge drop in volume, and the lane's capacity is not being used," he said.

Lopez said the proposal does not appear to be based on revenue expectations, since Metro estimates a net return of between $95,000 and $2.3 million a year from all the lanes.

Lopez and local TxDOT spokeswoman Janelle Gbur said Tuesday that the proposal is only a draft and has a long way to go before being adopted.

Lopez said it would require public input, as well as approval by the Metro board, the Texas Transportation Commission, the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, which helped fund the HOV system.

Should those approvals be granted, a changeover could come in 2009 or 2010, he said.

The item is on the agenda — for discussion only — of the transportation commission, which meets at 9 a.m. Thursday at Sugar Land City Council chambers, 2700 Town Center Blvd. North.

Metro's board meets at

1 p.m. Thursday at 1900 Main, but the item is not on the published agenda.

The idea has been raised before. In 2003, then-Houston City Councilman Carroll Robinson said Metro could raise about $200 million a year for its rail and bus expansion plans by converting HOVs to HOT lanes.

Metro said at the time that FTA rules would not allow single-occupant vehicles to use the lanes paid for with federal funds.

Gbur said the version of the proposal sent to TxDOT's district office says tolls would be charged in segments of freeway now separated from the main lanes by concrete barriers, but not in diamond lanes.

The proposed toll segments run to downtown from FM 1960 on the North Freeway, from Kingwood on the Eastex Freeway, from Dixie Farm Road on the Gulf Freeway and from West Bellfort on the Southwest Freeway. Another runs on the Northwest Freeway from Texas 6 to the West Loop, she said.

The Katy Freeway is not included because it already is being rebuilt with four "managed lanes," which current plans call for operation as HOT lanes, down the center.

Since 2000, Metro has had a program called Quick Ride on the Katy and Northwest freeways that allows two-occupant vehicles to use the HOVs for $2 during hours when the three-plus requirement is in effect. A windshield tag is read electronically when a participating vehicle enters the HOV.

Under legislation enacted this year, the Harris County Toll Road Authority gets the right of first refusal to operate any toll projects in Harris County, but county infrastructure director Art Storey said he would be wary of seeking to run the proposed HOT lanes.

"I have considerable scars on my back regarding variable pricing," Storey said, referring to an unpopular — and short-lived — proposal to reduce congestion on the Westpark Tollway through a sharp rush-hour toll increase.

Lopez said the ramps from Park & Ride lots could have separate lanes for toll-paying and HOV customers "and a booth in the middle" where someone could verify occupancy.

He said he did not know how Metro's slip ramps, where traffic enters the HOV lanes directly from the freeway, would be monitored.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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