Monday, June 10, 2013

State Op-Ed: HOT lanes

What’s the problem?
In the transportation industry we are dealing we pretty much every issue possible: congestion, air pollution, transportation financing, safety, etc. We need to be creative in our solutions and there is no "correct" and perfect answer that will satisfy every person. The state level policy I propose is a simple one that is not perfect but has the potential to improve many transportation issues when used in the appropriate manner.

Possible Solution
We all know about High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, especially the solo I-5 NB HOV lane that some hate and some love. My proposal is to implement policy to consider High Occupancy Toll lanes (HOT) as a means to reduce congestion. I don't propose this as a policy to be considered just in Oregon but in any state. Congestion is a pressing transportation issue which I describe in another op-ed blog post.

HOT lanes are HOV lanes that allow single-occupant vehicles to use it if they pay a fee. Busses and carpoolers can still ride in it for free but if you’re alone then you pay a fee. HOV lanes are discouraged because they don't use all of the capacity that they why not sell that extra capacity  HOT lanes have the ability to improve transportation in many ways. They can reduce congestion, increase transit ridership, lessen travel times and promote carpooling which can reduce air pollution. When peak hour pricing is implemented it can also decrease the amount of drivers during peak hours. Agencies can also promote electric vehicle usage by allowing them to travel in the lanes for free.

Congress has made it possible to implement this new(er) strategy to reduce congestion. MAP-21 gives states flexibility, when it comes to tolling, but exempts them from converting an existing lane into a HOT lane. States will need to build new lanes or convert HOV lanes in order to create HOT lanes.

In San Diego, a HOV lane was converted to a HOT lane in 1996 and has proved to be successful, especially financially. The implementation cost was $1.85 million and the lane creates about $1 million in revenues each year. The toll rates for this lane range from $0.50 to $4.00 based on how much traffic is on the road. For awhile, San Diego also offered a monthly pass instead of per trip costs.

The United States Government Accountability Office did a study on price-managed lanes and found that these lanes generally reduce congestion even though they found some potential issues of concern, such as equity.  Below is a map of the lanes that they studied:

How can this be implemented?
Even though the federal government has given the states to go-ahead, some states may need to implement new legislation in order for HOT lanes to be possible. They may need to pass legislation allowing for the conversion of an HOV lane to a HOT lane, to allow charging fees on state highway or to permit enforcement by technology or electronic toll collection (ETC).

Political issues may be the hardest obstacles to overcome. It is difficult for officials to persuade drivers to pay for something that they already get for free. Value pricing can help mitigate this issue by basing the price on maintaining a certain level of service.  

Potential issues
One critique of HOT lanes is that they are not equitable for low income drivers. A possible mitigation for this critique is exemplified in California’s option of FAIR lanes. Essentially, drivers that use the normal lanes get credits and once they get enough credits they can use the HOT lane for free. Drivers can also choose to carpool or take transit. Also, ideally, if the HOT lane is reducing congestion then the normal lanes should be going faster anyway so there is still some time travel savings.

HOT lanes are not the answer to everything but they can be the answer in some instances. Transportation officials need to be wise and do the proper research and studies to determine if a HOT lane would be effective in a certain location. There is a lot of flexibility with HOT lanes when it comes to pricing and means to operate the lanes. HOT lanes have proved to be effective so when used appropriately, they can be a great tool in the transportation toolbox. 

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