How to Deal With High Toll Rates and Other Issues on Express Toll Lane Networks


How to Deal With High Toll Rates and Other Issues on Express Toll Lane Networks

Urban areas need to address these challenges or risk losing the large benefits of these toll lane networks.

Ten years ago, priced managed lanes were still a rare occurrence on America’s congested urban freeways. Today, according to the Transportation Research Board’s Managed Lanes Committee’s database, over 1,500 lane-miles of this kind are in operation, with many more under development. These express toll lanes (ETLs) are delivering faster and more reliable trips for drivers every day in a growing number of metro areas.But there are several warning signs on the road ahead, threatening the vision of seamless express toll lane networks in most or all large metro areas.

Three specific challenges are emerging that the transportation community must deal with pro-actively:

1. Ever-higher toll rates on the most successful corridors, leading to political blowback;

2. Resistance to adding ETLs on existing urban toll roads; and,

3. Resistance to new ETLs by advocates of rail transit.

The first problem, high toll rates, was a highly visible issue in this year’s legislative sessions in Florida and Texas, with proposals to abolish ETLs surfacing in both, along with other anti-toll measures. And there have been complaints about too-high peak toll rates on I-95 ETLs in Miami, on I-495 in northern Virginia, and on I-405 in Seattle.

The second problem, resistance to adding ETLs on existing toll roads, thus far seems confined to Miami and Orlando, where board members of local toll agencies Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) and Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) have expressed concerns about the idea of a premium “toll within a toll”-charging two different rates to groups of customers. The result is missing links in the planned express toll lane networks in both metro areas.

And the third problem, resistance to adding lanes due to the push for rail transit, threatens to torpedo the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT)’s planned ETL network in Tampa, for which none of the planned links have yet to be authorized. State DOTs are already devising plans to address the first problem in areas including, Seattle, Northern Virginia, and Miami. One cause for the super-high toll rates in all three cases is bottlenecks where customers must transition from the ETLs to regular lanes. At least a partial remedy here is to extend the ETLs further and/or to add auxiliary lanes to reduce the bottleneck effect. But in these and other ETL corridors, where overall traffic continues to increase and it is difficult to add more priced capacity, other solutions also need to be explored.

CDM Smith traffic and revenue expert Ed Regan and I have been brainstorming these problems over the past year, and Ed discussed them in a recent issue of Public Works Financing and at July’s International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) Managed Lanes conference in Dallas. In the context of adding ETLs to existing urban toll roads-we have conceptualized an idea that could result in a win-win-win solution, with the biggest winners being those regular toll road users, who would enjoy a less-congested trip.

MDX, one of the toll agencies facing this problem, has proposed converting the inside shoulder lane on its heavily congested Dolphin toll road to bus-only use. That’s politically popular, but even an aggressive program of express bus service would use only a small fraction of the lane’s capacity. Toll-paying customers stuck in the adjacent congested lanes would be unhappy seeing all that empty capacity going unused. But we know that opening the bus-lane to all vehicles would quickly overload it, destroying its speed advantage for the buses.

The best way to limit vehicle use to permit uncongested flow is variable pricing. Hence, the best solution may be to operate the (new) shoulder lane as an “express/transit” lane, with pricing set to ensure Level of Service C conditions for cars and buses during peak periods. And that would also solve the problem of the missing link in Miami’s growing ETL network.

Toll roads generally have bond covenants dedicating all the revenue to the capital and operating costs of the tolled facility, so what we propose to further increase the credibility of the “express/transit lane” version of ETLs is that the additional revenue from the variable pricing in the new lane (total revenue minus the base toll revenue from those in the new lane) be dedicated to capital expenditures for that corridor-such as park and ride lots and flyover on-ramps and off-ramps. This would make the express/transit lane a truly multi-modal corridor.

In those metro areas where advocates of rail transit are opposing the creation of ETL networks, the express/transit lane concept offers a realistic middle way between a purely car-focused ETL and an unaffordable rail transit line taking up part of the expressway right-of-way. This approach should be promoted aggressively in Tampa, where FDOT is at risk of losing political support for the planned ETL network. And to many people’s surprise, it may emerge as the most realistic alternative in Miami, as well.

For several years the local Metropolitan Planning Organization has been promoting a Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) plan based on six new rail transit corridors to supplement the existing Metrorail system (which has only a few lines). Recently, it has dawned on some Miami leaders (including Miami-Dade’s Mayor Carlos Gimenez) that the full rail plan is unaffordable-and that region-wide express bus service may be more viable.

That approach is still controversial, but the first test case could be the MDX Dolphin corridor that Ed and I used as our hypothetical example. The numbers we crunched compared a bus-only lane with an express/transit lane. Both the peak-period speeds and overall throughput of the entire corridor are far better as of 2035 under the express/transit model. Moreover, the incremental annual revenue from operations in that lane (available for additional capital investment in the corridor) would increase from $10.8 million in 2020 to as much as $21.7 million by 2035.

Kimley-Horn and Cambridge Systematics have done a similar analysis for Miami’s I-95 ETLs (which already use some of the toll revenue for express bus purposes), in this case comparing a hypothetical situation in which the express lanes were abolished and those lanes converted to general-purpose use (as one legislator had proposed). Average peak-period speed in the entire corridors would be significantly lower if that were done, and so would hourly throughput. The case for ETLs remains strong, but the transportation community needs to be proactive in addressing emerging concerns. Otherwise, we risk losing the large benefits of this 21st-century innovation.

This column first appeared in Public Works Financing.