One of the greatest transportation policy success stories of recent decades is express toll lanes. Since the world’s first variably-priced express lane project opened on State Route 91 in Orange County, California, in Dec. 1995, similar projects have spread to nearly all the largest urban areas in the United States—apart from the Northeast. In fact, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data shows more than 60 express toll lane (ETL) projects in operation across the country as of last year.
Express toll lanes have continued to be implemented because of their performance. Thanks to variable pricing, they are the only highway segments that can remain free-flowing during times of very high demand. And this benefit is long-term sustainable if the pricing is allowed to vary enough to maintain traffic flow at 45 to 50 miles per hour during peak periods.
Express toll lanes can be created in two ways. The easiest and least costly method is to convert poorly-performing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. In cases of more severe traffic congestion (in high-growth metro areas), toll-financing new ETLs is feasible, sometimes with a portion of the equity investment coming from the state department of transportation (DOT). According to Fitch Ratings, most toll-financed express toll lanes have BBB or higher investment-grade ratings.
One other large benefit, if mass transit agencies take advantage of it, is that express toll lanes provide a guideway for regionwide express bus service, without the transit agencies having to pay for an exclusive guideway or paying user charges. When the Florida Department of Transportation converted congested HOV lanes to ETLs on I-95 in Miami, ridership on long-distance express buses using the ETL lanes quadrupled in the first five years.
With all these benefits, what’s not to like?
Alas, even in some metro areas where partial networks of express toll lanes are in operation, there is opposition to adding to the network. That’s what is happening in cities including, Austin, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Tampa, and Washington, D.C. (on the Maryland side of the Potomac River).
One frequent complaint from drivers is “high toll rates.” Opponents in Maryland use the typical trick of finding out the highest projected peak toll (which might apply during 30 minutes at the peak of the busiest rush hour at the peak of congestion). Toll opponents then multiply that high toll rate per mile times the full length of the tolled corridor and present that toll as being the “typical” price drivers might face on a daily basis.
Price caps imposed in some metro areas have created problems during peak periods. In both Miami and Seattle, for example, northbound evening peak ETL trips encounter a physical bottleneck, and the capped toll rate is not high enough to prevent traffic congestion from building up there. As a result of the traffic jam caused by the price caps, opponents of express lanes then gleefully announce that this proves ETLs don’t really solve congestion.
Another common criticism of express toll lanes comes from the “no more tolls” opponents. Populist Texas Republicans gained control of the governor’s mansion and lieutenant governor’s office along with their majority in the state legislature, and for about a decade they’ve forbidden TxDOT from supporting any new toll projects. As a result, TxDOT’s current plans call for investing $8 billion in old-fashioned HOV lanes (which virtually no other jurisdictions are still building) in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. Perhaps in an effort to save face, TxDOT is labeling these carpool lanes as “managed lanes,” which is usually understood to mean priced lanes.
Similarly, populist Republican legislators in Miami got their colleagues to agree to the partial dismantling of just-opened ETLs on the Palmetto Expressway, converting one express toll lane in each direction to a general-purpose lane and reducing the benefits of the ETLs.
A third source of opposition to express toll lanes comes from anti-highway groups, which often include NIMBYs (not-in-my backyard(, environmentalists, and planners concerned about CO2 emissions. Many planners are convinced that highways are, and always will be, major sources of CO2 and therefore oppose any additions to highways, including ETLs.
One recent example is the Denver Regional Council of Governments draft long-range plan, which calls for not proceeding with previous plans to lengthen existing ETLs on I-25 and C-470 due to carbon footprint concerns. The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) concern ignores inconvenient facts about lower CO2 emissions, like traffic flowing smoothly at 45 miles per hour in express toll lanes and reducing CO2 emissions compared to much higher CO2 emissions from general purpose lanes having slower, stop-and-go traffic congestion.
The Denver plan also neglects to consider that by 2050, according to projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, nearly half of personal vehicles in the United States may be electric-powered, based on federal and state policies and the announced electric vehicle (EV) conversion plans of nearly all major automakers. Highways are long-lived investments that should be designed to meet future needs and concerns, not near-term problems. DRCOG’s plan also ignores the synergy between ETLs and regionwide express bus service (assuming there is a regionwide ETL network, which its proposed plan would curtail).
A final concern is about transportation equity. For example, in the Seattle metro area, the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) has sponsored a study of how to make the region’s express toll lanes more accessible to low-income residents. Favored approaches from the initial study include either discounted toll rates for such users or a certain number of free trips each month.
In California, Caltrans is also considering such measures for the growing number of HOT lanes in the state. One negative impact of such programs, however, is undercutting the power of variable pricing to keep traffic flowing smoothly during peak travel periods.
More fundamentally, the low-income beneficiaries of such programs are people who already own personal vehicles and have jobs. Nobody has offered such people discounted gasoline to help pay gas taxes, so why should such concerns apply only to optional priced express lanes? Truly low-income commuters have access to heavily subsidized bus transit services and could have access to faster and more reliable bus rapid transit trips if transit agencies took full advantage of the free guideways provided by express toll lanes.
As it is, a University of Washington study that I wrote about in my February 2021 column found that the lowest-income quintile of I-405 express lane users derived the highest net benefit from their paid trips (i.e., the value of the time they saved was worth far more than the price of the toll) on express lanes.
Advocates of express toll lanes should not take these criticisms lying down. Where express toll lanes are in operation, they have numerous satisfied customers, especially where prices are allowed to do their traffic-management job.
ETLs are optional, so no one is forced to pay tolls. ETLs have lower carbon footprints than regular, general-purpose highway lanes. And over the next few decades, the United States will see far lower CO2 emissions from the rapidly-changing vehicle fleet. Plus, unlike adding general-purpose lanes, adding express toll lanes must pass a market test. Would enough vehicles use the lanes to generate enough revenues to finance them? That kind of benefit-cost analysis should apply to all highway capacity additions. But at least for express toll lanes, we are unlikely to implement any that do not fulfill a genuine need.
A version of this column first appeared in Public Works Financing.