Blog Bay Area Looks To Future With Regional HOT Lane System

Slight decreases in traffic congestion due to the economic downturn are no reason to curtail aggressive transportation planning for looming population and employment growth in major metro regions. Despite the most fervent wishes of some planners, metro region growth in coming years will continue to be more away from, than to, high-density urban neighborhoods. This is due to due to several factors. For one, first- and second-ring suburbs have become regional employment centers, and cities in their own right. They are where people increasingly work, shop, play – and if finances permit, live. Examples in Central Puget Sound include Bellevue and Redmond to the east of Seattle, and (more affordable) Kent and Federal Way to the city’s south. Second, there are still better housing values in mid- and outer-ring suburbs that lie beyond these locales. Value for money in housing has always been a big factor – even more so now. Third, suburban public schools are in a number of important ways less problematic compared to their urban counterparts.
For these and other reasons, central cities are no longer economically and culturally dominant. They will become even less so as population continues to move outward. One result is that daily travel patterns for the majority of a region’s residents are – if not already a complex mosaic, or multi-stop “trip chain” – at least a far cry from the old school “hub and spoke” commuter routes going from suburbs to central city and back five days a week.
Advanced forms of ride-sharing aided by networked information systems are gradually coming into play, and telecommuting, one hopes, will become more widespread. But the future of highways and arterial roads in growing metro regions looks very busy. It could be said that ultimately the question is how best to modify behavior enough at the margins to stretch finite road capacity further. Because it is ultimately impossible, not to mention unthinkable, to enforce old-regime Soviet-style authority directing where people will live and work, and how and when and by what means they will travel, we are left instead with free-market incentives.
For signs of an enlightened modern approach beginning to emerge, look no further than the San Francisco Bay Area. It seems to get that while road capacity is not an unlimited resource, the region still must robustly address increased pressure on highway systems in years to come.
A related, and sweeping legislative proposal has been introduced in the current session of the California General Assembly. It stems from the earlier adoption by a regional agency of principles for a wide network of booth-less, cash-less electronically tolled express highway lanes. These would be free to transit and ride-share vehicles and available to solo drivers for an account-billed variable fee, based on real-time congestion levels.
An important marker on the pathway to implementing this system of “High Occupancy (and) Toll” lanes (HOT lanes) was adoption by The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the nine-county Bay Area regional transportation planning organization, in July 2008 of its HOT network principles. (See p. 3 for map).
The principles answer the question of why a region would consider such a plan, which involves converting existing carpool/transit-only or “HOV” lanes to more flexible HOT lanes, plus building new HOT lanes, while drawing upon the revenue raised by time-variable tolling of solo drivers. The MTC’s stated principles are:

  • More effectively manage the region’s freeways in order to provide higher vehicle and passenger throughput and reduce delays for those traveling within each travel corridor;
  • Provide an efficient, effective, consistent, and seamless system for users of the network;
  • Provide benefits to travelers within each corridor commensurate with the revenues collected in that corridor, including expanded travel options and funding to support non-highway options that enhance effectiveness and throughput;
  • Implement the Express/HOT Lane Network in the Bay Area…using a rapid delivery approach that takes advantage of the existing highway right of way to deliver the network in an expedited time frame;
  • Toll revenue collected from the HOT network will be used to operate the HOT network, maintain HOT system equipment and software, provide transit services and improvements in the corridors, finance and construct the HOT network, and provide other corridor improvements.
  • Those principles gave rise to legislation, now pending. The MTC provides this important analysis of AB 744 to “authorize a Bay Area express lane network to deliver congestion relief and public transit funding with no new taxes,” introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont (pictured, right). The bill would authorize the MTC’s corollary agency, the Bay Area Toll Authority, to finance, construct and operate a complete, seamless regionally-managed express lane networks on major highways. The system would:

  • convert 500 miles of existing or fully-funded HOV lanes to express HOT lanes;
  • build 300 miles of new express HOT lanes (180 miles to fill gaps, 120 miles to extend the system outward);
  • maintain free-flowing traffic for carpoolers, buses and toll-payers by adjusting tolls as congestion fluctuates;
  • yield $13.7 billion in revenues over 25 years, fully paying for its $7.6 billion cost, including construction, operations, maintenance, and enforcement, and providing an additional $6 billion for further transportation improvements in the highway corridors, including public transit;
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 million metric tons, versus the traditional HOV lanes approach;
  • boost the value of worker productivity by $100 billion by reducing highway delays.
  • According to the MTC analysis, AB 744 has some additional safeguards. It requires that 95 percent of the net revenue raised in each corridor be spent in that corridor for transit or emission reduction projects, and that the decisions about what such projects to implement be based on a bottom-up planning process giving ample voice to local input.
    The MTC analysis also takes aim at a common canard that priced express lanes are “Lexus Lanes” mainly for the well-off. Nationally, the MTC reports, only 25 percent of priced express lane users are classified as high-income; and a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo study of SR 91 express lane users in Orange County found usage more closely tied to travel conditions and trip needs than income.
    The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes of the AB 744 plan:

    Bay Area transit planners have relatively limited options in trying to keep traffic moving in a region where growth continues to outpace the ability to build freeways or expand mass transit. Their challenge is to find ways to make better use of the transit and roadways we have. One such alternative is to create a seamless regional network of lanes for buses, carpoolers – and drivers willing to pay a toll.
    We can certainly understand the instinctive groans at the concept of what transit planners call “high-occupancy toll” (or HOT) lanes – and critics deride as “Lexus lanes” that allow drivers with the means to pay a fee to glide past traffic. However, on closer review, the congestion relief produced by an enhanced network of express lanes would offer benefits to bus riders as well as drivers in the free lanes.

    Marin County’s elected board of supervisors has voiced opposition to the regional approach embodied in AB 744; they want local say-so on turning Route 101’s HOV lanes, in Marin, into HOT lanes. The Marin Independent Journal in an editorial, disagrees, saying HOT lane policy is a regional matter. They are right. If every municipality or county that would be affected by tolled express lanes were given veto power, a piecemeal and politicized approach would result within contiguous, vital regional corridors and throughout the regional highway system. In the long run, traffic congestion would only spiral. The greater good requires a comprehensive plan, building upon the HOT lane projects already planned or underway. In the Bay Area, these include I-680 over the Sunol Grade, and I-580 in Alameda County plus SR 85 and US 101 in Santa Clara County.
    <a href="Torrico’s AB 744 is wending its way through the state legislature. It is too early to say how it will fare. It would not be shocking if such a comprehensive and bracing approach failed to gain full traction early on.
    Cascadia Center does not endorse or oppose this bill. Our interest is in identifying surface transportation best practices, and ventilating related issues. Generally speaking, regional express lane systems are in our view a smart way forward. Especially considering the cost of failing to implement this approach.
    Greater Portland, and Central Puget Sound will want to be considering very closely what’s being pursued for the Bay Area.
    UPDATE, 4/23/09: It should be noted that although the regional HOT lane plan is a major step in the right direction, some healthy debate is warranted over the spending priorities in the MTC’s larger, $218 billion, 25-year “Transportation 2035” plan, approved yesterday by the planning body. It’s reported that of the $218 billion in anticipated revenues, some $142 billion would be spent on expansion, operations and maintenance of transit; $66 billion for street, road and highway maintenance; and just $11 billion for expansion of roadways. The “Transportation 2035” plan, including amendments approved yesterday, can be found here. Further analysis of this broader 2035 plan will need to be of the gimlet-eyed variety. It should include comprehensive review of costs and benefits of the transit versus roadway expenditures, plus scrutiny of fiscal assumptions and strategies, versus fiscal best practices.