Blog When “Lexus Lanes” Aren’t

The Washington State Department of Transportation last spring began a four-year pilot project to see how High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes would work on a nine-mile stretch of State Route 167 in the near-south suburban part of the Seattle region, from Renton to Auburn. Carpoolers and transit use the fast lanes for free, solo drivers pay a sliding-scale fee based on current congestion. It’s all electronic, with gantries and transponders, not a toll booth in sight, thank goodness. Prices can range from 50 cents to $9 on SR 167’s HOT lanes, but have tended toward the lower end of the scale so far. The aim is to keep traffic flowing at 45 mph or higher at least 90 percent of the time. HOT lanes are one form of a broader strategy known as congestion pricing that can also be applied to all lanes of a highway, and (theoretically) to all roads and streets in a metro region through the use of GPS devices on vehicles. The higher the demand at a given time, the higher the charge, is the basic idea.
The big knock on HOT lanes by critics nationwide has been that because of those tolls for solo drivers, they are really so-called “Lexus Lanes,” amenable only to the rich and privileged, who are more likely to drive luxury cars. Those driving Fords and Chevys would be priced right out of the HOT lanes, according to this argument.
But the chart below, presented yesterday by WSDOT to the Washington State Transportation Commission, shows the opposite. From May through July, 2008, the vehicles most often using the SR 167 HOT lanes were…….Fords and Chevys. By miles. Followed by Toyota, Honda, Dodge and Nissan. Luxury models are much lower.

Some of this has to do with the auto demographics, if you will, of South King County. It’s not Lexus-land by any stretch. Some of it may have to to do with the average price of the tolls in the SR 167 HOT lanes through September 25 of this year, a whopping $1.07, as reported by WSDOT here at this writing. Usage has been modest so far, between 1,100 and 1,300 drivers a day. Regionally, that will change, as more HOT lanes are built to accommodate growth and help fund projects. Adding to the 2000 population base of 3.2 million, another metro Portland worth of residents (1.7 million people) are projected to descend on Puget Sound in the next 32 years.
If there were HOT lanes on SR 520 and I-90 – and that could be in the pipeline, as KIRO 7 TV reported last night – we’d see a somewhat higher proportion of luxury vehicles, higher trip totals than on SR 167 now, and thus probably a higher average price. But there’d still be plenty of Toyotas, Nissans, Fords, Chevys, Chryslers, Hondas and Subarus using those HOT lanes – because we all value our time.
We can study the social equity implications further with detailed studies of actual income levels of HOT lane users, as opposed to vehicle types. Some jurisdictions might choose to offer discounts for lower-income drivers when charges exceed a certain level.
But the time is ripe for a new moniker. “Ford Lanes”? “Chevy Lanes”? Or how about, “Everyman’s Lanes?”
Maybe state officials should get a suggestion on this from the Democratic Leadership Council. They’re big fans of HOT lanes.