On March 25th, the country’s newest express toll lanes opened to traffic on I-75 in Broward County, FL. They extend from I-595 on the north end to NW 138th St. in Miami-Dade County in the south, and are part of an emerging three-county express lanes network. Currently under construction as parts of this network are express lanes on SR 826 (Palmetto Expressway) and the Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike, both in Miami-Dade County. Construction is also under way to extend the existing express lanes on I-95 northward into Palm Beach County, reaching Delray Beach by mid-2023. In Georgia, two more ETL projects are expected to open this year in metro Atlanta: the I-75/I-575 lanes in the northwest and a 10-mile extension of the ETLs on I-85.
Around the country, new express toll lane projects are in the planning stages for the following corridors:
California: adding ETLs to US 101 and I-280 in San Francisco County. Colorado I-25: an 18-mile project between Monument and Castle Rock, south of Denver, expected to receive federal approvals by summer and to start construction this fall. Georgia: ETLs on the highly congested “Perimeter” ring road, I-285 Maryland I-95: a 16-mile northward extension of the existing ETLs, with construction scheduled to begin in January 2019. North Carolina: ETLs for two additional congested freeways in the Charlotte area, besides the project nearing completion on I-77. The first would be on US 74 from uptown Charlotte to the I-485 beltway; the second project, on I-485 itself, would go from US 74 to I-77. Oregon: adding ETLs to portions of I-5 and I-205 in the Portland metro area.
Generally, the first ETL project in a metro area is controversial, with critics complaining either that the lanes will be ineffective because hardly anyone will pay ridiculously high tolls or that they will be ineffective because they will get so overloaded that they will be as congested as the regular lanes. For example, a County Supervisor in San Francisco objects to their ETL plans, alleging that the lanes would create traffic woes that would drive cars off the freeway into surrounding neighborhoods. Similar objections continue to be voiced in Charlotte. The CEO of a local chamber of commerce says the I-77 project “will only cause congestion,” despite adding new capacity to this congested freeway. And NC state Sen. Jeff Tarte says that an express lane benefits only those who pay to use it, not drivers in the existing lanes (despite the added lane capacity).
The I-77 project remains controversial, with the state DOT now reviewing options for what to do when these P3 express lanes are completed late this year. One populist option is to buy out the 50-year concession and open the ETLs as general-purpose lanes. In addition to being unaffordable, this would provide only near-term congestion relief, in the absence of variable tolling that would ensure greater peak-period vehicle throughput in the express lanes than in the general-purpose lanes in future years. Moreover, the environmental impact report would have to be done over, since the analysis in the current environmental study was based on priced ETLs, not general-purpose lanes.
An even greater problem afflicts California’s ETLs, most of which are conversions of HOV lanes and are currently allowing free passage for HOV-2 vehicles. In addition, under the state’s clean-air policies, plug-in hybrids and electric, natural gas, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are also exempted from tolls in HOV and express toll lanes. In both the San Jose area and on I-110 (Harbor Freeway) in Los Angeles, these policies so overload the express lanes during peak periods that current policy is to forbid entry to toll-paying vehicles once speed and throughput decrease seriously. Last fiscal year, LA Metro operated the I-110 lanes in “HOV-only” mode for 352 peak-period hours, nearly one hour per day. LA Metro also has a major problem with cheaters—drivers who set their transponder to “carpool” when they are alone in the car, to avoid paying the toll. Metro estimates that 25-30% of drivers in the I-110 ETLs are doing this.
Both LA Metro and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) are pushing hard for policy changes. Metro wants to increase the HOV requirement from two persons to three. And both Metro and VTA are pushing for permission to charge clean-air vehicles. My understanding is that both changes will require legislation, which will be a challenge. But ETLs can only cut congestion and maximize vehicle throughput if all, or nearly all, vehicles face variable tolls. As UCLA Prof. Marty Wachs told the Los Angeles Times last fall, “The idea that we would give discounts based on what fuel the vehicles use is a distraction from the main purpose of the policy, which is to manage highway capacity. They’re competing goals.”
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Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.