San Diego has become famous in the world of transportation planners. It’s the first place in the country to demonstrate that variable pricing on special lanes can keep traffic flowing swiftly at rush hour.
Officials from all over America have visited the managed lanes on Interstate 15 and taken the idea back to their own communities. And the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, has made expanding managed lanes one of the top priorities for its recently renewed TransNet program.
Managed lanes are separate lanes on a freeway limited to certain types of vehicles and operated to achieve higher performance than regular lanes. To prevent the lanes from getting overloaded at rush hour, they are priced (like other scarce commodities) so that demand will equal the supply of uncongested road space. Having some lanes always operating under “free-flow” conditions is of great benefit to (1) emergency vehicles, (2) buses, (3) car-pools and (4) everyone who really needs to get to their destination on time, and is willing to pay a price to do so.
Thanks to voter approval of TransNet in November, SANDAG is accelerating the managed lanes projects included in its Mobility 2030 plan. The existing eight miles on I-15 are being lengthened to 20 miles (and increased from two lanes to four). A new managed lane project will be added to the northern part of Interstate 5, and such lanes also will be added to state Route 52 between I-15 and state Route 125. Future plans call for adding managed lanes on Interstate 805, as well.
That’s great news, both for transit and for congestion-plagued motorists. But even if SANDAG builds all of these managed lanes, drivers on most of the region’s freeways will not have the option of paying for an uncongested trip, and the mass transit benefits will be limited. Because of funding limitations in TransNet, only four freeway segments will end up with these wonderful improvements. And most of them will not seamlessly connect with one another.
Imagine instead that San Diego had a complete, seamless network of managed lanes, enabling cars and buses to get from any part of the county to any other, reliably and at high speed. Such a plan was proposed in a new report from the Reason Foundation. It would cost five times as much as the $2 billion SANDAG currently plans to spend on managed lanes, because it would equip much more of the freeway system and would build flyover connectors where freeways intersect so that cars, buses, and emergency vehicles could transition smoothly and quickly from one managed lane to another.
The benefits of a complete network would be very large, especially as San Diego’s population swells in the coming decades. From a transit system standpoint, such a network would be the functional equivalent of a countywide network of exclusive bus lanes, allowing buses to travel anywhere in the county at full speed. And from the individual motorist’s perspective, there would be great peace of mind in knowing that, wherever you needed to go on the freeway system, you would always have an uncongested alternative if you absolutely, positively had to get there on time — to catch a plane, make a meeting, pick up the kids at day care, etc.
But how could a $10 billion system be built, when TransNet only provides for $2 billion for managed lanes? The good news is that if San Diego were to follow the lead of Denver, Houston and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., it could use the toll revenues from such a network to issue long-term bonds to fund much of the $10 billion cost.
The Reason study estimated that if the managed lanes network were operated to maximize revenues, it could raise nearly two-thirds of that $10 billion cost from toll revenue bonds – meaning taxpayers would pay only $4 billion of the $10 billion price tag. That would help SANDAG move beyond the funding limits of TransNet’s “Reasonably Expected Revenue” scenario.
Other large urban areas are moving in this direction. This spring the board of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission will vote on a draft long-range transportation plan that includes an extensive network of managed lanes. Studies of such networks are under way in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Washington, D.C.
San Diego’s pioneering project on I-15 directly inspired these efforts. It would be ironic if these other large urban areas went well beyond San Diego in making the benefits of managed lanes available to their bus riders and motorists.
Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation.