Policy Study

Adding FAST Lanes to Milwaukee’s Freeways

Congestion Relief, Improved Transit, and Help with Funding Reconstruction

Executive Summary

Greater Milwaukee has a large and growing problem of traffic congestion. In 1982, the average resident spent five hours per year stuck in traffic. By 2003, that total had grown to 23 hours. Trips at rush hour now take more than 20 percent longer to make than at other times of day. The cost of wasted time and fuel averages $310 per person per year in the Milwaukee area, and is likely to grow significantly in coming decades.

Freeway congestion has also had a devastating impact on bus service and has severely hindered transit’s time-savings competitiveness with the automobile. “Freeway Flyers,” stuck in the same traffic jams as cars, have lost their “express bus” advantage as an alternative for commuters. As a result, transit continues to lose commuter market share, circling down the death spiral of service cuts and fare increases.

One seldom discussed cost of freeway congestion is the greatly reduced ability of emergency vehicles (police, fire, paramedic) to get where they need to go rapidly and reliably. In responding to life-threatening emergencies, every second counts. Yet congested freeway lanes may make it impossible for these public safety vehicles to get through when they are urgently needed.

Some may attribute recent traffic delays to construction work on the Marquette Interchange-and that may be partially correct. But it is a mistake to think that traffic jams will go away once the Marquette is completed. In fact, all evidence indicates that traffic congestion will continue to worsen. Southeastern Wisconsin is in the early stages of a $6.2 billion reconstruction and modernization of its aging freeway system. Simply widening much of the system by adding one lane in each direction (as proposed by SEWRPC) will reduce congestion initially, but projected growth will overwhelm the expanded system in the not-too-distant future-and support is unlikely for further widening due to costs, political opposition, and land-use constraints. Hence, this reconstruction cycle may be the last real chance the region has to consider a more sustainable longterm approach to its freeway system.

This report proposes that on the most congested core portion of the rebuilt freeway system, the inner lane in each direction be configured as a “FAST Lane,” on which traffic always flows at the freeway speed limit thanks to variable pricing-adjusting tolls to maintain free-flow traffic conditions. The use of pricing means there will be tolls, but no toll booths. The variable tolls will be charged electronically, via transponder. There is no need for stopping, slowing down, or using coins. Nearly a decade of experience with such priced lanes on two California freeways shows that variable pricing works well to keep such lanes flowing freely, at the speed limit, during highly congested peak periods. The pricing also generates revenue that more than covers the cost of constructing the FAST Lanes.

FAST Lanes assure motorists that no matter how bad traffic gets, they will always have a reliefvalve available when they really need it. Some have begun to call this concept “congestion insurance.” Just as people purchase insurance to guard them against life’s other hazards (fire, theft, accidents), with a network of FAST Lanes they will be able to purchase insurance to guard them against being late. The initial cost of this “insurance” is very low: simply the cost of opening an account and installing a transponder on the car’s windshield. From that point on, account-holders have the peace of mind that whenever they are running late and really need to be somewhere on time, they have a means of buying that faster trip for a price that is lower than the cost of being late. This will always be true since it will be the individual driver who chooses whether or not to pay for a specific trip. Data from the long-established California HOT lanes support the premise that most people don’t use these lanes every day (which for most would be quite costly). Rather, the overwhelming majority uses the lanes in the “congestion insurance” mode, once or twice a week. Data also show that the system is popular with people of all income levels, so all segments of society benefit from the availability of FAST Lanes.

The proposed FAST Lanes system would encompass the approaches to downtown on I-94 from the south and from the west, on I-43 and US 45 from the north, plus the inner core of freeways near downtown (I-894 and I-94/43 north-south, and I-94 and I-43 east-west). This is the portion of the freeway system where congestion is projected to be worst, even after the widening. It is consequently the area where relief is most needed and where willingness to pay to avoid congestion will be greatest. Our proposed construction phasing of the FAST Lanes is designed to get the highest revenue-producing segments in operation first.

Our analysis projects traffic on the freeways and on the FAST Lanes segments through 2045. Based on a starting rush-hour toll equivalent to 15 cents/mile (in 2005 dollars), we estimate that the proposed FAST Lanes would generate enough revenues to support a toll revenue bond issue of about $1 billion. To put it in perspective, that kind of new voluntary (non-tax) revenue could finance the cost of rebuilding the entire Marquette Interchange with money left over. It certainly would make a significant contribution toward the $6.2 billion cost of the overall freeway reconstruction program.

FAST Lanes also provide uncongested guideways for express buses, enabling Freeway Flyers, UBUSes (University buses) and other transit services to operate faster, more efficiently, and more reliably than on regular, congested freeway lanes. Restoration of the time-savings advantage can help transit recapture some of its lost share of the commuter market. In addition, FAST Lanes will provide a greatly improved means for emergency vehicles to reach the scene of incidents, or to get to the portion of the metro area where they need to be, in significantly less time.