Last week the Sun Sentinel urged Gov. Rick Scott to veto Florida DOT’s plan to increase the $7 cap on I-95 express lane tolls. Doing that would destroy the effectiveness of the very mechanism that is benefitting about 2 million motorists and over 100,000 express bus passengers per month.
Think back to the perpetual gridlock that faced drivers and bus riders every morning and afternoon on I-95 in Miami. Both the carpool lane and the regular lanes were in stop-and-go conditions every rush hour. But today morning rush-hour speeds average 48 mph in the regular lanes (versus 15 mph pre-express lanes) and 64 mph in the express lanes (versus 20 mph before).
Variable tolling makes this much-improved performance possible. The price to use the lanes depends on how many vehicles enter them, allowing just enough to keep traffic free-flowing but without getting congested. Most of the time, this does not require a very high toll: in December the average morning rush-hour toll was $1.64. The $7 maximum is charged only when the Express lanes start to get overloaded – and typically last only 15 or 30 minutes.
That used to happen only a few times a month. But in 2012 it happened 63 times. And in just the first half of 2013 it occurred 83 times. Hitting the maximum so often means the ceiling is too low. Unless it is raised, congestion will return.
Contrary to the Sun Sentinel editorial, everyone on I-95 benefits from the express lanes. With 2 million cars per month shifting from the regular lanes to Express Lanes, those who use the regular lanes benefit from less congestion and much higher average speeds. And those who choose the Express Lanes only do so if their benefits are worth more than the toll.
And those benefits are not just for Lexus drivers. Lots of people find it worth paying even $7 for very important trips: getting your family to Miami International on time for a vacation flight, getting to a job site in time to do one more paying job, making an important meeting on time, or avoiding costly late fees when picking up a child from day-care. Even a low-income mom is better off paying a $7 toll than a $15 late fee.
Among the most important beneficiaries of the Express Lanes are transit riders.
The so-called express bus service prior to the express lanes was slow and unreliable (and also required a transfer at Golden Glades). Today there are eight nonstop express bus routes from sites in Broward County to downtown Miami. And they are so successful that Broward County Transit needs to find larger park & ride lots!
That huge transit success is at risk if congestion returns to the express lanes.
Finally, the Sun Sentinel editorial suggests that the net revenues from the express lanes are being used elsewhere in the state. That is flat wrong.
Both by statute and by written FDOT policy, any net toll revenues (after capital and operating costs) are to be spent on transportation improvements in the counties where the tolls are collected. Here in South Florida, revenues from I-95 in Miami will be used to help pay for adding express lanes to the Palmetto Expressway, starting this year. And once the I-95 lanes are open to Broward Blvd., any net revenues will likely be used to help pay for express lanes on I-75, also starting construction this year.
The overall FDOT plan is to develop a network of express lanes on the major expressways in Broward and Miami-Dade County. Over the next 10 years, that network will grow to nearly 140 miles. Since most other expressways are not as congested as I-95 in Miami-Dade County used to be, rush-hour tolls will be lower than those in Miami.
A regional network of express lanes will mean every commuter on an expressway will have the option of faster and more reliable travel when it really counts. And for the first time, Southeast Florida will be able to have region-wide express bus service that is fast and reliable even during the busiest rush hours.
All of this depends on variable pricing.
Robert W. Poole Jr. is the Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation. This article first appeared in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.