Second Opinion by Cliff Slater
January 13, 2003
Tollroads becoming popular
Ten years ago anyone who brought up the subject of road pricing (now known as value pricing), which is charging drivers for road use during the rush hour, could expect instant abuse. That attitude is changing rapidly.
The early objections were that it would increase the cost for motorists, that it would be a new tax, that it would be regressive in favoring the rich and hurting the poor and that, in any case, toll collecting would be a nuisance and also invade our privacy.
With the experiences gained in recent years with the SR-91 tollway in California’s Orange County, Houston’s Katy Freeway and San Diego’s I-15 tollway,(1) those objections are fading. A federal government poll of Orange County’s freeway users showed that after a year’s operation only 10% of motorists objected to pricing.(2)
It turns out that these new facilities have advantages that no one quite realized before. For example, many had expected that only the affluent would pay to drive on these tollways but experience shows that few people of any income amount use it on a regular basis. Most customers are infrequent users avoiding congestion so as not to be late for work or an appointment and working mothers running late who are trying to avoid the late charges at their child care provider, for example. Surprisingly, usage cuts across income groups. An indicator of this is that only 12% of users sign up for the cost saving monthly passes.
That’s one lesson learned lately. The others are that we should not convert existing freeway lanes from current general use to value priced lanes; drivers strongly object to that. However, objections to pricing are few when toll revenues allow new lanes to be built—the likely situation for the Governor’s proposal of a new reversible HOV tollway along the Leeward Corridor.
Another lesson learned is how tolls can be collected. Originally, tolls were collected at tollbooths. Today, new ones tend to have tolls collected with overhead transponders impacting electronically on pre-paid smart cards that are windshield-mounted. That way tolls can be collected anonymously.
Regular tolls do not impact peak hour traffic since drivers pay the same amount whether it is 3 AM or 7 AM. The early value priced tolls, as in Orange County, were fixed in advance with tolls peaking during the peak of rush hour, as one would expect. However, that did not allow for changes in traffic induced by major ball games, concerts, or bad weather, for example.
To respond to such changes in traffic, San Diego introduced dynamic pricing. Every six minutes tolls are recalculated, taking into account upstream traffic flows, and then posted some distance ahead of the tollway entrance, giving drivers ample time to choose.
Lower tolls induce more traffic—higher tolls reduce it. Thus, the tolls constantly balance traffic to allow the tollway traffic to be maximized while still free flowing.
The latest development is dynamically priced HOT lanes, combined HOV and Toll lanes. Buses and vanpools ride free—all automobiles pay. HOT lanes have experienced four times the average vehicle occupancy found on regular freeway lanes and, thus, two HOT lanes are the equivalent of eight regular freeway lanes.
HOT lanes are in place in urban areas and have been successful both financially and in public acceptance. Each of them is being expanded and additional cities are in the study or implementation phase.
The advantage is that the toll collections provide funding for the new lanes while offering buses and vans a faster ride. This acts both as an inducement for motorists to change to mass transit and also allowing an expensive but certain way to get places when motorists are running late.
This could be an answer for congestion reduction in the Leeward Corridor.
Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater
(1) Federal Highway Administration, U.S. DOT. A Guide for HOT lane Development. 2002. Sections 7.2, 7.1 and 7.3 respectively.
(2) See below for the excerpt from section 7.3.4 of Federal Highway Administration, U.S. DOT. A Guide for HOT lane Development. 2002.
San Diego I-15 Express Lane Survey
An 800-person telephone survey of I-15 Express Lane users completed in the summer and fall of 2001 demonstrates that motorists of all income levels recognize the benefits of HOT lanes. The following survey results show that the equity concerns are not shared by actual HOT lane users and other motorists in San Diego:
· 91 percent of those surveyed think that travel time savings options provided by the I-15 Express Lanes are a “good idea”;
· 66 percent of drivers who do not use them support the I-15 Express Lanes;
· 73 percent of non-HOT lane users agree that the HOT lane reduces congestion in the corridor;
· 89 percent of I-15 users support the extension of the Express Lanes;
· The extension of the Express Lanes was the top choice of both HOT lane users and non-users for reducing congestion in the corridor; and
· 80 percent of the lowest income motorists using the I-15 corridor agreed with the statement that, “People who drive alone should be able to use the I-15 Express Lanes for a fee.” Despite equity concerns that have been raised in locations without HOT lanes, low income users in San Diego were more likely to support the statement than the highest income users.
As demonstrated by surveys conducted in Washington, Minnesota and Florida, a majority of motorists in many congested areas would be willing to pay to avoid congestion, with no statistical correlation evident between income levels and willingness to pay.