Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation Innovations #5

Topics include: lessons from Orange County toll roads, huge support for value pricing, Orange County's mega-tunnel prospect, and a new look at capacity expansion.

In this issue:

Lessons from Orange County Toll Roads

The toll-road capital of the west coast is Orange County, California, where 61 route-miles of new toll road were added during the 1990s. Three of the projects were built and are operated by a pair of public joint powers authorities, and one was built and operated by a private company (though legislation was approved last month to have it taken over by the country transportation authority).

A recent paper from the University of California’s Policy Research Center provides a thoughtful overview of what we can learn about toll-highway finance and highway pricing from the Orange County experience. Authors Marlon Boarnet, Joseph DiMento, and Gregg Macey do an excellent job, and I urge you to read the whole paper, which you can find at Here are just a few tidbits from its findings.

  • Tolls seem most promising in heavily congested corridors with few alternate travel routes.
  • A possible alternative to building new routes is to convert underused HOV lanes to priced express lanes.
  • Peak/off-peak pricing is most likely to be accepted if presented to drivers as an opportunity to purchase an uncongested trip for a price, rather than as a “congestion tax.”
  • People are more likely to accept toll new roads if the alternative is no new capacity, when such capacity is seen as necessary to relieve congestion.

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Huge Support for Value Pricing

California is also the site of the first successful HOT lane with quasi-real-time variable pricing. The I-15 Express Lanes project resulted from the conversion of the seriously under-utilized reversible HOV lanes on I-15 to HOT lanes with electronic toll collection and pricing that’s adjusted every six minutes. The conversion was a joint effort of SANDAG, Caltrans, FHWA, and FTA, and all can be very proud of the results. Since practically no facility costs were involved (the grade-separated lanes already existed), the toll revenues can be used largely to subsidize express bus service in the corridor.

Now, after more than four years of successful operation, a major effort is under way to quintuple the size of the project, going from two lanes and eight miles (16 lane-miles) to four lanes and 20 miles (80 lane-miles) and adding a movable barrier to optimize capacity with traffic flow. As part of the planning effort, a team headed by Wilbur Smith Associates has done extensive public opinion research about the existing project and its planned expansion. What they’ve found is overwhelming support for HOT lanes.

Over 88 percent of current paying customers express support for the current HOT lanes, as do two thirds of other I-15 users. Large majorities also support the proposed expansion of the project. Especially important were the researchers’ findings on “fairness.” Survey results show that 75 percent think the project is fair to all users of the express lanes, and 70 percent think it is fair to users of the regular lanes.

In short, these results seem to be saying that once people have a chance to actually experience HOT lanes-i.e., real choice in rush-hour mobility—they will support it.

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Mega-Tunnel Prospect in Orange County

The key factor creating political pressure for the county take-over of the 91 Express Lanes was the inability to expand general-purpose lane capacity in the congested SR 91 corridor, given the non-compete clause in the company’s franchise agreement. But even with OCTA as the new owner-operator starting next year, there’s not much room for additional lanes through that narrow canyon between Riverside and Orange Counties. Hence, studies are under way for a new commuter link between the affordable housing of Riverside and the abundant jobs of Orange County.

One alternative-the only feasible one in my view-is a toll tunnel, for two reasons. First, given that the mountains between the two counties are all National Forest land, the environmental obstacles to a surface route will be insurmountable. Second, only a tunnel will be perceived as sufficiently costly and complex to justify tolls as the principal funding source-and let’s face it, there’s no way a $2-3 billion new freeway is going to get built in Southern California without a major new funding source.

You can read about some of the current discussion of the tunnel alternative in this recent article from a local newspaper, whose reporter interviewed me about the issue. Just click on

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A Calm Look at Capacity Expansion

When I read the latest mobility report from the Texas Transportation Institute, I was struck by their fascinating comparison of congestion intensity in metro areas that have attempted to expand highway capacity to keep pace with traffic growth versus those (the majority) that have given up on doing so. That sparked my latest Public Works Financing column, which is attached to this newsletter. I hope you find it provocative. (If the file failed to get attached, or you cannot open it, you can email the editor, Bill Reinhardt, at I’m sure he’ll send you a copy, as well as urging you to subscribe to his excellent publication.)

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Upcoming Speaking Appearances

Reason’s work on issues such as Toll Truckways and (forthcoming) HOT Networks has led to a whole raft of speaking engagements. I look forward to seeing you at one or more of the following, where I will either be presenting or commenting:

  • Oct. 20-22, UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium, Tackling Traffic Congestion;
  • Oct. 25, USC/AASHTO National Symposium on Transportation, International Trade, and Competitiveness (Long Beach);
  • Oct. 27-30, TRB Third National Transportation Finance Conference (Chicago);
  • Nov. 20-21, ARTBA Public-Private Ventures Div. annual conference (Washington);
  • Jan. 12-15, TRB Annual Meeting (Washington).

Hope to see you soon.

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