Policy Study

High Occupancy Toll Lanes

Phasing in Congestion Pricing a Lane at a Time

Executive Summary

A consensus is emerging among transportation economists that the best way to deal with freeway congestion is to charge for driving during peak hours. The main barrier to implementation is political: drastic change is politically unpopular. This paper proposes a way of overcoming the political obstacles by phasing in congestion pricing over a period of many years.

The proposal involves modifying the current concept of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. Current HOV lanes are not very effective at reducing traffic; 43 percent of car-poolers are members of the same household. They cost everyone but serve few drivers. We propose replacing HOV lanes with HOT lanes: High Occupancy/Toll lanes. A HOT lane would give free passage to three-occupant vehicles (HOV3s) but permit all others to pay a peak-hour toll for access. This would utilize more of the lane’s capacity, demonstrate congestion pricing on a wide scale, and generate revenues to pay for HOT lane construction. In cases where the choice is between a HOT lane or no additional lane, the HOT-lane option also promotes ridesharing.

Existing HOV lanes would be converted to HOT lanes, and planned HOV lanes built as HOT lanes instead. Once a HOT lane reached capacity and there was demand for more of its services, the adjacent lane would be converted to a second HOT lane. Over time this process could be repeated.

Two Southern California projects will soon offer drivers the opportunity to experience HOT lanes. One is the private toll lanes project under construction on the Riverside Freeway (SR 91) in Orange County. The other is a planned HOT lane conversion on I-15 in San Diego County.

HOT lanes at surface levels can often be financially self-supporting from toll revenues, thereby permitting the expansion of the planned Southern California HOV network with private capital, rather than limited public funds. Elevated HOT lanes, which are much more costly, could be developed as public-private partnerships with mixed funding. Provisions for private construction and operation of toll lanes on existing freeways already exist in the law of both California and the federal government.

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.

-Mark Twain