Senator Hutchison Amendment Threatens HOV to HOT ConversionsCaught this in Bob Poole's most recent Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter from Reason. Considering that Metro is actively working on converting our HOV lanes to HOT ("high-occupancy toll" lanes - congestion-priced express lanes open to all, but discounted or free for traditional HOV vehicles), this is an unfortunate dropping of the ball by Kay Bailey...
Hopefully it will get reversed. In any case, at least it's only for one year. I'm not sure if Metro is on any conversion schedule that happens that quickly, but I'd like to hope so.
The Omnibus Appropriations Bill signed by President Bush just before Christmas contained what appeared to be an innocuous little provision from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, TX). It imposes a one-year ban on putting tolls on existing federal highways in Texas. Since it’s almost impossible to toll currently free highways under federal law, and since doing so requires a local referendum in Texas, this measure appeared to be purely symbolic—a nice feel-good response to the populist anti-toll movement in the Lone Star State.
But then the people at TxDOT and FHWA started reading the fine print. They figured out that not only does this measure reverse—for one year, and just for Texas—provisions that have been in place since the 1991 ISTEA reauthorization (such as using tolls to rebuild ailing non-tolled bridges and tunnels on the Interstate system), but it also apparently forbids the conversion of existing HOV lanes to HOT lanes. And a number of such projects are in the planning or implementation process in Texas (as in other states).
Back in 2004-2005, I spent more days than I wanted to in Washington, DC, walking the halls of Congress and meeting with various transportation groups, as debate raged over the specifics of tolling and pricing measures to be included in what became SAFETEA-LU. Although there was lots of disagreement over tolling of existing general-purpose lanes, everybody involved in those debates agreed that converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes was an option all states should have—i.e., that by now there was ample evidence that HOT lanes are a good idea, and states should no longer have to get special permission (and a Value Pricing Pilot Program grant) in order to do such conversions. The idea was that the time had come to “mainstream” such conversions. And that’s how SAFETEA-LU left things.
Whether it meant to or not, the Hutchison amendment has now thrown a monkey wrench into efforts already under way to convert HOV lanes to HOT lanes, such as the PPP project on I-635 (LBJ Freeway) in Dallas, and potentially the I-30 express toll lanes (under construction) which are planned to initially open as HOV lanes, with tolling phased in later.
These appear to be unintended consequences of the way the measure was drafted. I hope Sen. Hutchison will support a technical correction to make it clear that her measure applies to not tolling general-purpose lanes, leaving HOV-to-HOT conversions free to proceed, as Congress intended. (Note: for more details on the provision, see Peter Samuel’s commentary at www.tollroadsnews.com/node/3338 )
The newsletter ended with the following local quote supporting privately financed toll roads:
“When capital comes to the state, we all win, because that means more jobs with good wages and good benefits for the people of Texas. . . . So if someone is willing to come from Chicago or some foreign country and bring capital to the state, we should be greeting them at the border with open arms. The Legislature failed to do this in the last session, and I think that’s a mistake that will hurt us long-term in our efforts to attract capital to this state and help build roads that will end the congestion.”
--Bill Hammond, CEO of Texas Association of Business, speaking at the 2007 Texas Transportation Forum