Sunday, August 17, 2008

"It's the revenue stream. The idea is to shut off the lanes so you can collect tolls..."

Katy Freeway's new lane plan draws ire

Many residents at public meeting balk at reduced HOV hours, toll

Aug. 17, 2008

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

It took more than a year for motorists to learn to coexist with light rail on Main Street. Audience response at the first public meeting on the coming Katy Freeway "managed lanes" suggests another learning curve ahead.

About 200 residents jammed a back room at the Houston Public Library's Kendall Branch in the Memorial area last week to pepper Harris County Toll Road Authority deputy director Peter Key with questions and criticisms about the plan.

A frequent complaint was that the proposed hours for vehicles with two or more occupants to ride free of charge would be sharply reduced from those on the present HOV lane.

Earlier announcements said those free rides would be limited to the peak hours of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. That is a more than 50 percent decrease from the 14 hours a day that Metro's current Katy Freeway HOV is open, even though at peak times it requires three occupants.

"If I have four people in the car after 9 a.m., will I have to pay a toll?" one resident asked. Key said she would.

"It's the revenue stream," another said. "The idea is to shut off the lanes so you can collect tolls from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m."

"Yes, we are a toll-road authority," Key acknowledged.

However, on Friday he said he has reconsidered and will likely propose increasing the hours to agree with those on other Metro HOVs, which operate 12 hours a day from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

"I can't imagine proposing anything to Commissioners Court that would be taking away something from people who use the HOV today," he said.

Catching scofflaws

Another consideration, Key said, was that drivers could be confused if the toll road authority's managed lanes operate under sharply different hours than Metro HOVs on other freeways.

One resident questioned the authority's plan to keep the lanes closed to toll customers for six months, from late October until next spring. During that time, they would be open during the HOV hours only for vehicles with two or more occupants.

Key said this would be a test period to determine how many drivers with passengers use the lanes. "We want to know if there is really capacity available to be sold during peak hours," he said, adding that the freeway's expanded main lanes will probably handle off-peak demands.

Several residents objected to paying $15 for a toll road EZ Tag and maintaining a $40 balance, when they only want to use the managed lanes with a passenger for free. "I never use the toll road system," one said.

"You don't need an EZ Tag during the first six months," Key said. And after that, he noted, users can get a TxTag from the Texas Turnpike Authority instead. There is no charge for these, and the balance required is $20.

A resident asked whether motorcyclists could use the lanes for free. Key said the current plan is to treat them like 2+ HOVs, with free rides during the specified hours.

After the meeting, Key described how the lanes would be policed against cheating.

He said each vehicle registered as an HOV will activate a light when it passes through EZ Tag sensors, alerting a deputy nearby to visually check the number of occupants.

If the deputy sees only one person, he or she would pull over the vehicle or radio ahead for another deputy to do so.

© 2008 Houston

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