Monday, April 07, 2008

"The decision on imposing peak-hour pricing rests with Commissioners Court."

Driving at rush hour may cost more on Katy Freeway

April 7, 2008

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

Commissioners Court will begin debating today whether to impose congestion pricing when the four toll lanes open on the rebuilt Katy Freeway in October.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is recommending the court set a rate of $1.25 during nonpeak hours for the trip between Texas 6 and the West Loop and double that during the morning and evening rush hours.

The court voted last June to double tolls on the Westpark Tollway during rush hours but overturned its decision days later following a public outcry over the plan.

The court is expected to set the prices for toll lanes on the Katy Freeway in the coming months.

In 2002, the county, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Texas Department of Transportation agreed to cooperate on widening the 11-lane Katy Freeway to 18 lanes.

As part of that agreement, the three public bodies committed themselves to operating toll lanes that would always flow about 45 mph, giving people an incentive to pay to use them.

These lanes also will serve as high-occupancy vehicle lanes, said Peter Key, deputy director of the toll road authority.

But the pact, he said, does not require peak-hour pricing. The decision on imposing peak-hour pricing rests with Commissioners Court, he said.

"We think (peak-hour) pricing is the most effective way to keep traffic flowing and the safest way," Key said.

County Judge Ed Emmett said, "We have to maintain a certain speed in those lanes, and congestion pricing is supposed to do that."

Four middle lanes — two lanes in each direction — will be toll lanes and high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Metro buses will travel the lanes at no cost.

Vehicles with three or more occupants will be able to travel for free in the eastbound toll lanes from 6 to 11 a.m. and in the westbound toll lanes from 2 to 8 p.m., year-round.

Besides high-occupancy vehicles, only vehicles with EZ Tags will be allowed to travel the toll lanes.

With the court's permission, the toll road authority will be allowed to double prices during nonpeak hours when the traffic on the toll roads is moving slower than 45 mph, Key said.

The toll road authority will rely on Transtar cameras for information about traffic flow in the toll lanes.

Signs along the toll road and its entrances would inform drivers when prices during nonpeak hours were doubling.

If a $2.50 toll did not keep traffic flowing at a minimum of 45 mph, the toll road authority could recommend that the court raise the price, Key said.

"If we don't maintain that flowing traffic in that (Katy Freeway toll area), we will have to make changes," he said. "One potential change would be the toll rate."

Key said the toll road authority wants to see whether doubling will be enough to keep the toll lanes flowing.

"If you're going to start, it seemed like a wise idea to start on the lower end," he said.


Peak-hour prices on toll roads elsewhere in the U.S. greatly exceed the $2.50 being considered for the Katy Freeway:

• In northern Virginia, drivers pay $12 for a 12-mile ride.

• A tollway in Orange County, Calif., charges $10 for 10 miles.

• Drivers in Minneapolis pay $8 for an 11-mile ride.

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