Commentary

More Managed Lanes for San Diego

Seamless network of fast-moving lanes possible

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.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.

Aviation

Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.