Blog Tolling, HOT Lanes Spread In U.S., Creep Forward In Puget Sound

Highway tolls to help raise maintenance and construction funds, and sliding-scale user fees to control peak-hour congestion are spreading across the U.S and creeping forward in central Puget Sound. In a year-end editorial, the Tacoma News Tribune highlighted the success of tolling on the new, second (southbound) Tacoma Narrows bridge (right side in adjacent photo), and the importance of tolling as a future transportation revenue source in Puget Sound:

The greatest challenge facing the growing Puget Sound region is building and repairing transportation infrastructure to keep people and freight moving smoothly. But the region’s voters in November soundly rejected Proposition 1, a massive and costly roads-and-transit ballot package that, among other things, would have extended Sound Transit’s light-rail system all the way to Tacoma.
Now state lawmakers must devise new approaches, including more emphasis on using highway tolls to pay for road repairs and construction. On the plus side, the new Narrows Bridge opened July 15, on time and under budget. More than 50,000 pedestrians packed the span from end to end for hours. Afterward, commuters marveled at the improved traffic flow. Complaints about the bridge toll dwindled.

Narrows Bridge tolls are $3 for two-axle vehicles without a pre-paid account, $1.75 with an account – they do not vary by time of day or traffic loads, as is the case under so-called “congestion pricing.”
Narrows Bridge tolls can be collected on approach at booths off to the side, but there’s been a run on electronic, dashboard-installed “Good To Go” transponders, which are read by overhead gantries as cars whiz underneath.
Congestion Pricing Pilot Project In Puget Sound
Also on the regional tolling roster in Puget Sound is a Washington State Department of Transportation pilot project to start later this year on Route 167 in South King County. It will convert the carpool lane in each direction to a High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lane open to carpoolers (two passengers or more in this case) for free, and to solo drivers for a sliding-scale toll set by real-time levels of road congestion. As for regular commuters on the southbound Narrows Bridge, transponders will be used. The higher peak-hour fees are offset by lower off-peak charges, which may compel shifting of some trips to those hours – or the forgoing of non-essential peak-hour solo driving.
Regional HOT Lane Network Needed On Puget Sound Highways
The SR 167 pilot project is a good first step, but part of what Puget Sound really needs to control traffic congestion as population grows robustly in coming decades is a regional network of HOT lanes on connecting highways; not just a few HOT lanes here and there. In addition, HOT lanes should number at least two in each direction, not one.
The Domino Effect?
Another possible tolling project in Puget Sound could have a domino effect. To qualify for a $138 million Urban Partnerships grant from the feds to help fund the financially-challenged SR 520 bridge rebuild, state legislators must approve tolling for that span. If they do that – as they certainly ought to – it will immediately raise the possibility of also tolling the parallel I-90 bridge across Lake Washington, in order to avoid undue congestion there from motorists seeking to avoid 520 tolls. Tolling these major east-west highways in turn cannot help but promote consideration of tolling our region’s congested north-south highways, namely I-5, SR 99, and I-405.
Legislature Seen Likely To Act
With such considerations at top of mind following Prop. 1’s defeat, the legislature is expected to develop a tolling bill in the upcoming short session.
An Emerging Policy Priority Across The U.S.
The action on tolling in Washington state comes against a busy national backdrop – and a growing awareness that highway tolling and highway congestion pricing are necessary in many urban regions.
Car drivers aren’t the only ones affected; truckers – and consumers – also have a big stake in congestion relief.
In Forbes, logistics expert Robert Malone writes:

There will be increased road congestion in nearly all urban areas in the U.S. in 2008. Delays in commuting and delivery of commercial loads continue to go up, and that means money wasted idling and just-in-time delivery threatened. Many lane miles will have to be added to the U.S. highway system just to keep up with traffic growth. There will be more calls, consequently, for congestion pricing, specifically in dense urban areas.
Congestion pricing just adds one more cost to truckers or those using their services, and that will inevitably be passed on to the consumer….there are not a lot of choices: cut down on delivery (unsatisfactory), build roads (politically complex and expensive), or go congestion pricing and help some and alienate others.

“Congestion Pricing Isn’t Going Away”
According to Forbes Small Business:

…congestion pricing isn’t going away. U.S. municipalities including Dallas, Miami, Minneapolis, San Diego, and Seattle are expressing interest in the idea. Groups such as the AARP and the National Supermarkets Association back it…Recent studies estimate that traffic jams cost the U.S. economy a whopping $65 billion annually – and the figure is rising. Among the industries hardest hit: trucking, service and repair, wholesale trades, and construction. Gridlock costs New York City $4.6 billion in lost business revenue, estimates the Partnership for New York City, a group of 200 CEOs who support congestion pricing.
The traffic crisis is spreading beyond the largest areas….Adam Madetzke, the owner of Salt City Couriers, says that northbound congestion on I-15 – Utah’s most clogged highway – has hampered his delivery business: “During rush hour the heavy traffic drops our profits by 20% to 30%.” While it debates congestion pricing, Utah hopes that a new commuter rail system set to open next spring will alleviate the problem….San Diego has been charging commuters a toll on an eight-mile stretch of I-15 since 1998, which lets those who pay use special lanes during peak hours. The charge varies from 50 cents to $8, depending on demand. Since the toll was imposed, usage of express lanes has nearly doubled, and the number of carpools has gone up more than 70%. Denver, Houston, and Minneapolis have similar toll highways….Minneapolis, which has suffered from heavy gridlock since the I-35W bridge collapsed in August, will raise tolls and partner with companies located along the interstate to encourage telecommuting.

14 Miles Of HOT Lanes Coming to Capital Beltway
One big HOT lanes deal announced recently is in the Washington, D.C. region and involves the State of Virginia and private partners. The Washington Business Journal reports that the U.S. Transportation Department, the State of Virginia, Fluor Enterprises, and Australia-based Transurban Group are partnering on a $1.9 billion public-private venture to add two new HOT lanes in each direction and one general use lane on each side of the Capital Beltway between Springfield, Virginia and the Maryland border. Virginia keeps control and oversight of the new HOT lanes while the private partners operate them and collect tolls to pay back a $588 million federal loan and $600 million in private-activity bonds issued on their behalf by the feds. Construction on the new lanes begins this year and is to be completed by 2013.
Pennsylvania’s Act 44
Faced with an estimated shortfall of $900 million each year for road and bridge maintenance, Pennsylvania has passed Act 44, which will raise up to $116 billion over 50 years for roads, bridges and transit through new tolls on I-80, toll hikes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the sale of revenue bonds. Turnpike Authority Vice-Chairman Timothy J. Carlson writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the added tolls and borrowing may be tough to swallow for some but are the right course – given pressing system needs, high gas prices and pinched pocketbooks.
“Desperate” L.A. Seeks Congestion Pricing On 3 Highways
In the Los Angeles Daily News, staff writer Sue Dolan notes L.A. has submitted a federal grant application for funds to convert HOV, or carpool lanes to HOT lanes on three area freeways, and comments:

Some Californians have long believed in the concept of the free and open road, but with freeway speeds today crawling as slowly as 17 mph by 6 a.m., that free-spirited thinking could soon dead end in Los Angeles. And good riddance. While roads may be free today, they’re simply not moving….It’s gotten so bad that traffic dictates where we shop, who we date and how we spend our free time. And after grappling with bottlenecks during the week, many commuters feel too worn out on weekends to go anywhere. What a way to live.
But transit officials hope to get certain freeway lanes moving along at 50 mph and say tolls could lead the way. Rates have not yet been set but would vary by the time of day – and solo drivers would pay more to use the lanes. “We’re desperate,” said Marc Littman, Metro spokesman. “We’ve reached a tipping point and have to come up with some solutions.”

Orange County HOT Lanes More Popular Than Ever
South of L.A. in Orange County, what are perhaps the nation’s best-known HOT lanes have become crowded at rush hour despite the costs. So Friday afternoon tolls will rise from $9.25 to $10 between 3 p.m. and 4 p,m, on the eastbound SR 91 Express Lanes connecting Orange and Riverside counties (right). Tolls are substantially lower at other hours, but some motorists are upset nonetheless. The L.A. Times reports:

Express lane officials argue that the toll lanes are too popular, which slows travel for paying customers. By using so-called congestion pricing, they hope to persuade some commuters to travel during cheaper hours….Joel Zlotnik, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which owns and operates the express lanes….(says)…by raising the peak toll, drivers are encouraged to travel during off-peak hours….
The OCTA isn’t the only agency in the state to use a sliding fee scale….San Francisco has congestion pricing in place on several roads and is considering a plan similar to London’s, under which motorists would be charged for entering the downtown area, or even for entering the city’s limits.
…The higher toll rates indicate a demand for extra capacity, said Peter Samuel, who edits a Web-based news service specializing in toll roads. “They need to widen the 91 Freeway and look at a whole range of alternatives, including building a tunnel through the local mountains as was talked about,” Samuel said. “The new toll is one of the highest in the country. But if you’re reaching the saturation point with traffic, you’ve got to raise the cost, or otherwise the idea for having toll roads breaks down.”

The Times reports Riverside County wants the 91 Express Lanes extended into their territory, as well.
The “Lexus Lanes” Canard
The popularity of the 91 Express Lanes was already clearly evident in 2005, when the Washington Post reported:

…the most important lesson of these California roads — sometimes derided as elitist, double-taxing “Lexus lanes” — is that commuters will flock to them in large numbers, regardless of the price….ridership on the Express Lanes has surged — from 10 million trips in 2003 to 11.2 million last year. (The Reason Foundation’s Robert) Poole surmises that commuters view the tolls as “congestion insurance” — costly, but essential to keep their lives from being lost in traffic. “I don’t see any way around it,” said Crystal Lee, a Riverside accountant and mother of two. Her ride home on the Express Lanes saves her 10 to 30 minutes, she estimates, and guarantees she’ll be home in time to get her daughter to dance class. “I need the time,” she said, “more than the money.”

The Democratic Leadership Council tackles head-on the class- and income-based “Lexus Lanes” claim.

…some oppose (HOT lanes) on equity grounds, claiming they would represent “Lexus Lanes” where commuters who can afford tolls receive an unfair advantage over their less-affluent fellow citizens (this is actually an argument against any toll roads, not just HOT lanes). But studies of HOT lanes have shown that a representative mix of commuters use them, not just the wealthy. Moreover, commuters in the regular lanes benefit from reduced congestion. And finally, it is low-to-moderate income commuters who most often encounter the kind of work or family emergencies that can be eased by the ability to occasionally buy a quick commute.

Reviewing surveys of Orange County HOT lane users and conducting its own community survey on the upcoming SR 167 HOT lanes pilot project, WSDOT reached similar conclusions.
Forbes Small Business notes:

Despite opposition, congestion pricing may have legs politically. It’s a cheap alternative to building new roads, and it can help cities reduce pollution. That makes it a natural for Democrats, with their base among big-city voters.

The Road Ahead, In Cascadia
Here in the Cascadia region including Washington and Oregon, the Seattle region is already instituting tolls and HOT lanes, with more likely to come, as detailed above. Down the road apiece, look for metro Portland to give serious consideration to tolling the replacement for the congested six-lane bridge across the Columbia River on I-5. The Oregonian reported the new 12-lane bridge will include special transit lanes (for either light rail or bus rapid transit), and the preliminary cost estimate is about $4 billion, emphasis on “preliminary.” The feds want to help and are encouraging tolling as part of the funding mix.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters visited Portland to endorse the Columbia River (bridge) effort and encourage private sector investment and tolling options. She suggested the federal government might pay as much as 80 percent of the project cost, but that is far from certain.

A Common-Sense Tool To Help Fight Traffic Congestion
The movement toward congestion pricing reflects rational valuation of a scarce commodity, road capacity. All of us in urban regions will have to adapt sooner or later. Businesses such as Microsoft Corp. have helped pioneer amenity-drenched private bus routes for employees, while Sun Microsystems in the Bay Area has taken the lead in encouraging remote work centers and telecommuting. With the gradual spread of tolling and especially higher peak-hour tolls through expanding regional HOT lane systems, expect more and more large employers to develop trip consolidation and trip reduction options, and embrace telecommuting on a larger scale, over time.
Given advances in remote audio and video conferencing technology; ever-improving group software applications for sharing complex projects among a distributed workforce; plus heightened concerns about time lost in traffic and greenhouse gas emissions; and you’ve got a real harmonic convergence.
The time for congestion pricing has come.