HOT Lanes Show Diverse Benefits

The San Francisco Bay Area is building the most extensive network of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes in the world, something Reason Foundation suggested for San Francisco and other urbanized areas in 2003. The HOT Lanes concept was introduced by the Foundation in 1993.

Under the current proposal moving forward, 450 miles of existing carpool lanes in nine counties are expected to be converted into HOT Lanes, with tolls varying by time of day and level of congestion. Another 350 lanes will be added later.

By late next year or early 2011, single-occupant vehicles will be allowed to use carpool lanes on some of the Bay Area’s most congested routes: southbound Interstate 680 from the Sunol Grade to Milpitas, eastbound I-580 in the Livermore Valley, and even at the ramps linking Highway 237 and I-880.

Carpool rules will be in place 24 hours a day, seven days a week on those freeway routes, and not just during commute hours — a major change sure to shock those who love to use the far left lane on weekends or during off-peak hours. Drivers will enter and exit the so-called “express lanes” only in specially marked locations, instead of enjoying the unlimited access they now have.

But that’s just the beginning. In a few more years, work will begin to create express lanes on Highways 85 and 101 in the South Bay. The cash they generate could help pay for a second carpool lane on 101 from Morgan Hill to as far north as Redwood City — the first double carpool lane in the Bay Area, though they are common in Southern California. This will be a huge, expensive undertaking in the northern part of Santa Clara County, where there’s little space to

HOT Lanes have their critics, but studies of their performance in San Diego (I-15), Southern California (91 Express Lanes), and elsewhere suggest most concerns are off base, as the San Jose Mercury News reports (quoting our own Bob Poole):

Early studies show some interesting benefits. Carpool use has jumped 53 percent since San Diego added express lanes on I-15, as drivers search for a passenger to avoid paying tolls. In Seattle, drivers have shaved 10 minutes off a nine-mile trip on Highway 167 since toll lanes were installed. And in Minneapolis, average speeds have improved 2 percent to 15 percent since express lanes were opened on I-394.

The chief gripe: These lanes are only for those rich enough to afford it.

But that’s not entirely true. Studies on almost every toll operation show that drivers of all income levels use these lanes — not every day, but when most pressed for time.

“Most of the demand is not from everyday Lexus-type drivers — they are only about 20 percent,” [Robert] Poole [of Reason Foundation] said. “Most users are people for whom paying the toll is better than being late to pick up the kid from day care, to avoid being late to work, to catch a plane, to meet an important client or to get in one more electrician appointment.”

It’s not quite privatization, but HOT Lanes are proving to be an efficient, effective, and manageable market-based tool for putting the right infrastructure in the right place at the right time based on the most useful criteria of all: willingness to pay.