NY Times on express toll lanesThe NY Times, which writes pretty top notch articles, has one today on the rise of express toll lanes. The graphic includes the example from the Katy Freeway, where $2 lets you use the HOV lane. A few random paragraphs of interest and then my comments at the bottom:
Social engineering is merging with traffic engineering, creating new technologies that charge people a variable toll based on how many cars are on the road - known as congestion pricing - or reduce toll rates for high occupancy to encourage car-pooling.
In just five years, the number of regular highway bottlenecks has increased by 40 percent, with 233 daily choke points across the map, according to several auto and trucking organizations. The average commuter now loses 46 hours a year sitting idle in a car. And the number of miles driven has gone up more than 80 percent over the last two decades while the number of new highway lanes has increased by just 4 percent.
And the vast Trans-Texas Corridor project, which would be the largest private highway system in the country, would allow corporations to charge tolls for 50 years as a way to pay for high-speed lanes in the state.
Charging tolls on the road's express lanes has been a big hit in this laboratory for congestion pricing. On the 91 Express, the prices vary from hour to hour in a system where traffic is constantly monitored and costs are adjusted accordingly. The car pool lanes, which are still free, are enforced by state patrol cars.
But people say they like the fact that there are no toll booths, and they can virtually guarantee being on time - for a child's soccer match, job appointment or doctor's visit. Average peak hour speeds on the 91 Express lanes were 60 to 65 miles an hour last year, versus 15 to 20 m.p.h. on the free lanes, according to federal officials.
"It's like everything else: you can fly coach, or you can fly first class," said Caleb Dillon, an X-ray technician in Riverside whose commute is an hour each way. "I'm not a rich guy, but I like having the option of saving time when I really need it."
The tolls have also succeeded in doing what no amount of cajoling and public service announcements could do: get people to car-pool. The 91 now has the highest occupancy per vehicle of any major road in California, state officials said. The reason is that toll lanes here are still free for people who car-pool, offering an incentive to travel together - a savings in tolls of more than $50 a week.
The new tolls rely on radio technology to debit an account instantly, and they are priced to ensure maximum flow of traffic and pay for the road but still make it worthwhile for a driver to leave the free road.
Texas has taken the most ambitious step, under Gov. Rick Perry. The Trans-Texas Corridor, pegged to cost up to $185 billion, would be financed by private investors, who expect to be repaid through tolls.
A consortium, the Spanish firm Cintra, has already been chosen to build the initial segment, from Dallas to San Antonio. The corridor would be nearly a quarter-mile wide, for rail, truck and auto traffic along with oil, gas, electric and water lines, to be built over the next 50 years.
Minnesota will do just that next month on Interstate 394, converting car pool lanes into paid express lanes on a road that carries commuters to and from the suburbs west of Minneapolis. The fee will vary according to traffic and car pools will still be free. State officials are promoting the system as the wave of the future - an on-time auto commute, for a price.
This is the wave of the future in Houston (I'm not as sure about the statewide Trans-Texas Corridor). Eventually there will be a complete network of these express toll lanes across the city helping wisk buses, vanpools, carpools, and people with a few bucks in a big hurry get anywhere at full speed. Some will be converted HOV lanes, some new lanes, and some existing toll roads. I hope they even consider converting some existing free left lanes (although not entire freeways like they were looking at with 249). Some people are opposed to converting free lanes, but those lanes would actually carry more vehicles/hour at 60mph than they do at 20mph, which means fewer cars stuck in the remaining free lanes - everybody's better off.
My own proposal is to call them "MaX Lanes" - which would stand for "Managed eXpress Lanes", but would also convey the fact that they're designed to carry the maximum number of vehicles/hour at maximum speed.