Thursday, January 10, 2008

Senator Hutchison Amendment Threatens HOV to HOT Conversions

Caught 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...

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 )

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 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

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At 12:04 PM, January 10, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding this quote at the end, I'm just reading through Jane Jacobs' "Cities and the Wealth of Nations" which is all about contradicting the blanket statement that all outside capital is good, so its funny to see this. (A brilliant book by the way)

Capital investments can come in many different forms and many times have left regions stunted for decades. If you were really concerned with the effect on "all of us" then the best forms of capital are those that have high local multiplier effects, such as loans to local small businesses and funds for innovation, things such as business incubators.

Capital in the form of concrete roads that spread thin our local economy and further pollute our state are not at all necessarily good for everyone and could actually serve as a drain on the region's economy.

My key point though is just that such a blanket statement is clearly incorrect. Some types of capital coming into the region are good. Some are bad. Some are good for certain people. Some are good for all people.

Oversimplifying city-region economics is always a mistake or a deliberate manipulation.

At 1:36 PM, January 10, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This should effect anything in our metro. The Katy freeway has just over a year until final completion. The moratorium would have expired.

At 8:48 AM, January 11, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


I will have to put this book on my to read list. The idea that capital can be bad seems a little contrarian to my understanding of economics.

My experience has been that overcomplicating national economics is always a mistake or a deliberate manipulation.

Hopefully it's stands up to logical rigor a little better than what I've found from Mr. Florida.

At 12:41 PM, January 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jane Jacobs principal claim to fame is that she stopped a proposed cross-Manhattan highway through what is now called SoHo. I haven't read her stuff, but her adherents' credit her with saving the "community" of SoHo. I don't see this "save" as a virtue. Even if you assume that the roadway would have destroyed SoHo, which I don't, SoHo today is an area populated by (1) highly wealthy individuals and (2) high end retail stores. I have no problem with either of those two denizens of SoHo, but it ain't the Sesame Street style community she championed.


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