Fast Tracking to HOT Lanes

Special tolls would open HOV roadways to specific vehicles, reduce congestion

The average Phoenix commuter wastes 49 hours a year sitting in traffic. And with the area’s population projected to swell by another 2 million people over the next two decades, traffic congestion will get much worse unless the city and state embrace a variety of transportation solutions.

Today a rush-hour trip in Phoenix takes 35 percent longer than it would in clear traffic conditions. By 2030, Phoenix’s delays will nearly double. What is supposed to be a 30-minute commute will take more than 49 minutes – 65 percent longer than it should. That’s worse than traffic experienced today in cities like San Francisco and Chicago.

Preventing severe gridlock, and reducing current congestion, will require a comprehensive strategy incorporating new road capacity, toll lanes and more-efficient transit solutions.

State lawmakers have recently taken important steps in this direction.

State Sens. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, and Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler, have introduced separate bills that would allow the state or local governments to partner with private companies to build roads. State Sen. Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem, introduced bills that would permit the creation of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and allow existing carpool lanes to be better utilized by converting them into HOT lanes.

HOT lanes are freeway lanes priced (like other scarce commodities) so that demand will equal the supply of uncongested road space. Having some freeway lanes always operating under “free-flow” conditions is of great benefit to (1) emergency vehicles, (2) buses, (3) carpools and (4) everyone who really needs to get to his or her destination on time and is willing to pay a price to do so.

Southern California, home to the country’s worst gridlock, has had great success with HOT lanes. On Orange County’s 91 Express Lanes, drivers pay a variable toll that goes up during rush hours, in exchange for access to a lane that is guaranteed to be moving at 65 miles per hour.

Opponents used to call the 91 Express Lanes “Lexus” lanes, implying only the rich would use them. But they’ve been proven wrong.

In 2005 there were more than 12 million trips on the 91 Express Lanes, with most people using the lanes as “congestion insurance.” When people have to pick up their kids at day care, they know the toll is less than the late fees. When they have to make a flight or get to a child’s soccer game, they know they have a traffic-free alternative.

And the region’s entire transportation system is benefiting from the lanes. The 10-mile toll road generated nearly $40 million in revenues in 2005, money that will soon be enough to pay for upgrades to other freeways.

To get maximum value out of Phoenix’s 73 miles of existing carpool lanes, they should be converted into HOT lanes. Buses and high-capacity vans would use the lanes free of charge, dramatically speeding up their trip times and boosting their appeal and effectiveness.

Converting current carpool lanes won’t be enough, though. And that’s where the calls of Gould and Tibshraeny to partner with the private sector come into play. Imagine being able to get from one side of ever-expanding Phoenix to the other, without congestion. The private sector could help finance a network of HOT lanes connecting all of the area’s existing freeways.

While Arizona doesn’t have the money to finance such a project, private companies are willing and able. Arizonan and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters recently said there are “billions of dollars that the private sector and lenders have amassed to invest in transportation.”

The private sector has committed nearly $2 billion to add high-occupancy toll lanes near Washington, D.C., and $7.2 billion to build toll roads from Dallas to San Antonio. There are more than $25 billion in public-private partnership highway projects planned or already approved across the United States.

Arizona’s freeways don’t have to resemble parking lots. The Senate bills encouraging toll roads and public-private partnerships are significant steps in the fight against gridlock.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation. An archive of Poole’s work is available here. Leonard Gilroy is a certified urban planner and senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation. An archive of Gilroy’s work is available here. Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.