Friday, March 06, 2009

‘Real-time’ pricing, virtual highway robbery

Pricey trip mulled for Katy Freeway

$4 considered for travel in toll lanes at peak times


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

Harris County officials are considering a complicated plan to charge tolls on the Katy Freeway’s center lanes, with rates varying from $4 for people driving the entire length of the tollway alone during rush hour to $1 for anyone wishing to make that same trip at night and on weekends.

The plan, which would involve two High Occupancy Toll lanes in each direction, would take effect April 18 if it is approved on Tuesday by Harris County Commissioners Court.

The highest charge would apply to solo drivers heading east between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. or west between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to a rate schedule prepared by the Harris County Toll Road Authority. The $4 charge would cover the entire trip from Texas 6 to the West Loop or vice versa. The charge would be less for drivers exiting or entering between those points.

Reduced costs

It would cost $2 for solo drivers to make the entire eastbound trip between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., and between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.; or the westbound trip between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. and between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. They would have to pay $1 to use the toll lanes at any other time.

Drivers riding with at least one other person still would be able to use the lanes for free in either direction on weekdays from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. However, they would have to pay a $1 toll at any other time to make the entire trip.

Transit vehicles will use the lanes at no charge.

Raising the rate at peak times is designed to limit congestion on the toll lanes so traffic can flow steadily at 45 miles per hour. LaWanda Howse, spokeswoman for the toll road authority, said agency officials believe the complicated rate system will let them meet that goal while offering some predictability for drivers.

‘Real-time’ pricing

However, the operating plan the agency is asking Commissioners Court to approve would allow the development of a “real-time” pricing system that would adjust rates based on the speed and volume of traffic on all lanes. Under that scenario, the current rate would be displayed on electronic message signs.

The agency would have to ask Commissioners Court for permission to implement that type of system, Howse said. Officials hope the toll schedule they have devised will manage congestion enough to make that unnecessary, she said.

People driving alone would need to have an EZ Tag — an electronic collection system that drivers display on their windshields. Commuters who carpool would not have to use a toll tag during the free hours but would need one at any other time.

During the designated free hours, carpoolers would be required to use the left lane as they pass through tolling stations. Observers would be positioned at each station to look for vehicles with only one passenger, Howse said. They would radio that information to deputy constables so those drivers can be ticketed.

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