Transportation Policy

Unblocking the Box

Congestion relief may be coming soon to a city near you


Twenty years ago, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes were virtually the only politically acceptable way to add freeway capacity. But now it is becoming politically palatable to add capacity with high occupancy toll (HOT) or express toll lanes, which are open to toll-paying vehicles and usually some form of high-occupancy vehicle—bus, vanpool, or carpool. The success of HOV-to-HOT conversions, and the demonstrated ability of private firms to raise large sums based on projected revenues from such projects, has stimulated activity in several of the most congested metro areas. Here is a sampling of the projects:

Atlanta. After several years of study, the Georgia Department of Transportation in December 2009 adopted a $16 billion plan to add express toll lanes to nearly all the metro area's freeways. The first project, built by a public-private partnership similar to those adding capacity on the Capital Beltway and in Dallas/Fort Worth, will be on the I-75 and I-575, just outside the I-285 ring road (known locally as the Perimeter). Separately, the local toll agency is converting HOV lanes into HOT lanes on a 15-mile stretch of I-85.

Miami. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) added one lane each way when it converted HOV lanes into HOT lanes on I-95 in 2008. Where there was previously a single congested HOV lane in each direction, there are now two variably priced express lanes, which have brought major congestion relief (as well as faster and more reliable express bus service). FDOT has embraced a public-private partnership to rebuild I-595 in Fort Lauderdale, adding three reversible express toll lanes to this congested east-west commuter route. FDOT is also studying a complete network of such lanes for the three-county metro area.

Houston. The local toll agency financed the addition of two HOT lanes each way as part of the complete reconstruction of the Katy Freeway, which opened to traffic in 2008. Houston Metro, the local transit agency, is in the process of converting HOVs into HOTs on five freeways. Texas DOT is considering a public-private partnership for much of a planned outer beltway, the Grand Parkway.

Phoenix. The Arizona legislature passed public-private partnership legislation for transportation in 2009. The Arizona Department of Transportation and the metropolitan planning organization for greater Phoenix are developing plans for a number of HOT lanes in the region, most of which are expected to be privately financed and developed.

Los Angeles. Southern California, the longtime congestion capital of the United States, until recently had only one express toll project, the landmark 10-mile 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. But Los Angeles County is now converting HOV lanes on the Harbor and San Bernardino freeways into HOT lanes. The metropolitan planning agency is considering plans for a region-wide network of such lanes. Projects are in the planning or development stages in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. Current plans call for using public-private partnerships to add several missing links to the region's freeway system, including a five-mile toll tunnel on I-710 (beneath South Pasadena) and the planned 63-mile High Desert Corridor in northern Los Angeles County.

San Francisco. Although no public-private partnership proposals have yet surfaced, the Bay Area has opened two HOT lanes in the East Bay and has several more under development in Silicon Valley. Its metropolitan planning organization was one of the first in the nation to include a region-wide network of HOT lanes in its long-term transportation plan.

Seattle. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) reintroduced toll financing in the Puget Sound region a decade ago for the second span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Two other major projects—a toll tunnel to replace the structurally unsound Alaskan Way Viaduct and a new toll bridge to replace the SR 520 floating bridge—are under way. The legislature may allow a long-term public-private concession for WSDOT's $2 billion project to add express toll lanes to about 40 miles of I-405 in Renton, Bellevue, and Redmond.

Of the 18 most congested metro areas, whose 2009 congestion costs totaled $72 billion (out of the national total of $115 billion), the only ones thus far largely ignoring these trends are New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit. 


NEXT: President Dreamypants

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  1. If control over portions of the federal interstate highway system can be given to private operators, then the whole system can be fully privatized.

    1. Fuck you if you’re poor.

      Of course, the promise of capitalism was other, but that was then.

      1. You spelled that wrong. It should be ROADDZZZZZ for the Rich.

      2. Yeah, cause the poor can afford to drive a car, while contributing nothing to the tax base that pays for the roads now, other than gas taxes, which get diverted to pay for high-speed rail that the poor gentriffic, white yuppies use, so….LOOK! A chicken!

        1. Don’t bring your fetish into this.

          1. If you don’t like my fetishes, stop following me

            1. I had to know why the chicken kept crossing the roadz.

              1. Fuck you, that’s why.

        2. Also, fried chicken.

          1. That’s one of those things that is easy to be average at making but hard to fuck up and really hard to make it blissfully good.

            It’s like Mandarin in that sense.

    2. Yes it could, but the privatization would have to be done cold turkey, on wide scale, if not everywhere at once to be effective I believe. Because as with most anything to do with rolling back the state, something like this, you can’t just do very slowly in tiny increments, a few lanes, a few stretches here and there, because that’s all you’ll get and it’ll never go anywhere.

      Personally I don’t see it changing much either. Instead of utilitarian reasons of improving traffic (since the I don’t think the argument will convince most people[1]–certainly not the politicians and unions) I think any meaningful change will have to come from: “Well, we’re broke. We’ve got no choice.”

      [1]try making the same arguments for roadz or nearly anything else in under 1 min to other people who aren’t libertarian/min/anarchist and while trying to get them over the *shock*horror*gasp* reaction

    3. These are public-private partnerships that have to get permission to change tolls etc., not truly private companies. If you just hand control over interstate highways to private interests with no strings attached, they’re going to shake down drivers for all they’re worth. As bad as govt management of public resources is, an uncontrolled monopoly would be even worse.

      1. Well, I guess that because this system has been such a screaming success, we should just keep doing it, then?

        This reminds me of the antivouchers crowd.

      2. What monopoly? The interstate system is only one alternative in the transportation market. It is the easiest road system to privatize due to its design. There are also U.S., state, and county highway routes for drivers who don’t want to pay the market price for faster transportation. I would most likely be one of those users. If driving costs too much, people can adjust their choices. Roads are not an entitlement. If people had to pay market costs for using roads, it would create more demand for other private alternatives including passenger rail and more dispersed air services.

        1. I vaguely recall us having this discussion before. As I said then, the fact that some alternative means exist for accomplishing the same objective does not mean that it’s not a monopoly.

          If Lay’s was the only potato chip manufacturer in the US, they would be considered a monopoly, even though people are free to eat crackers instead.

          If people had to pay market costs for using roads

          The point is that the tolls wouldn’t reflect market costs…they’d be monopoly prices.

          1. “Monopoly” (your definition) prices can still be market prices. If the prices are too high, people will still not use the service. Eat some fucking crackers and quit bitching about your preference not being handed to you.

    4. Bi-curious? -Datebi*cO’Mis designed for bisexual and bi-curious individuals to meet in a friendly and comfortable environment. It hopes that all members can make new friends and establish romantic relationships.

  2. Robert Poole on Fixing Traffic Congestion

    It’s unpossible to do this. Why? Because….because….GOVERNMENT TRAINZZS!

  3. Which ROADZ exactly are for sale?

    1. The Road to Perdition is free, if you’re interested.

      1. An unjustly ignored flick, I thought.

        1. You would think that, what with your Tom Hanks fetish. And no, for the last time, I won’t call you “Wilson”.

          1. You’ve hated him ever since he left that dead donkey in your building’s elevator back in the 80s. And he didn’t even invite you to his party, did he? That’s because you’re a loser.

            1. You just want to try and hit on his mermaid girlfriend again, you scumbag. I know you thought you had a chance last time, but let me break it to you: you didn’t. She was just being polite. She told me so. She thinks you’re a potential rapist, and I said “potential?!?”

        2. Nominated for six Oscars != ignored

        3. A fine movie it was

    2. We only want the bridges so we’ll sub-contract fm the Red Army!

      Allah akbar babiee!

  4. Someone else was going down the road in 1975, the road to…

    1. No stop signs, speed limits… Are they on the Autobahn?

      1. Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der road to Shambala….wait, what…?

    2. Doug Henning was in Three Dog Night?

  5. Norm and I love HOV lanes.

  6. It’s possible freeway congestion was just a symptom of the 30-year credit bubble.

    1. Just like illegal Mexicans!

  7. Why am I not surprised Philly is one of the cities not trying to deal with congestion? Sure Kill Expressway FTW.

    1. They can’t even properly connect the freeways to one another in the Philly area. You pretty much have to be a local to figure it out.

      1. I blame the unwieldy Highway and Onramp tools. Attempt a connection, bulldoze, try again, bulldoze, repeat until you’ve wasted a million simoleons on that one spot of road.


      2. I used to live in Philadelphia, but had no car. I visited recently. I had no idea where the fuck I was going.

  8. The I-85 project in ATL that was mentioned has been a disaster. It took an existing HOV lane and converted it into a toll lane/HOV hybrid. You have to have a toll pass even if you have 3 people in the car – even though you don’t have to pay.

    The original HOV lanes allowed cars with 2 or more people, and so now the lanes are almost empty and congestion is much, much worse.

    The lesson that needs to be learned is that you can add a completely new extra toll lane, but taking away from the existing capacity (HOV to toll conversion) is a cluster for the users.

    They were very successful with creating a vocal opposition to ANY new toll project – even ones that create new capacity as the I-75/I-575 project described in the article. That project has been almost completely killed by the uproar and the frightened govenor.

    I’m sure someone’s making some money off of it though.

    1. I’m sure government fuckery is the cause. Any links to analysis of the problem?

      1. Right, anything that goes wrong anywhere MUST be the government’s fault. Keep clutching your anarchist card.

        1. be fair, it’s a pretty safe bet 80-90% of the time.

        2. Perverse incentives, dude.

    2. How does allowing hybrids solve congestion? Do hybrids not take up space? That is just giving indulgences to the faithful.

      1. Ummm, duh?

        Since hybrids won’t make it out of your neighborhood before the batteries run out, they won’t end up on the highway, resulting in less congestion.


        1. You win an internet!

      2. Who said hybrids solve congestion?

    3. To be fair, I thought Robert Poole was a statist cocksucker long before the I-85 HOV to HOT conversion.

    4. Similar thing with I-680 in the East Bay – they added an HOT lane over the legendary Sunol grade, but no one uses it. Someone else here commented about how we already paid for these lanes with our gas taxes, and now we’re being charged for them again, so they sit unused. Private toll highways, while so far in the course of human history are a completely theoretical affair, might or might not work, but this “take a taxpayer funded public improvement and let a private company charge a fee to use it” scenario is big government bullshit at its worst.

      1. Think of all the railroads and “traffic calming” they can fund with those freed-up fuel taxes!

      2. completely theoretical? So there have never been toll roads in practice?

  9. The Dulles Greenway is a cautionary tale.

    For those outside the DC area, the Dulles Airport Access Road (which is free but limited to airport users) has long had an additional toll freeway next to it that serves the growing suburban area between the Beltway and Dulles Airport.

    In the ’90s, a private firm built an extension of the Toll Road called the Dulles Greenway that serves suburban areas west of the airport. It’s been a failure because of high tolls and lower than expected usage. The original owner went bankrupt years ago, and I believe taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for it.

    I don’t necessarily have opposition to these projects, but it’s important to make sure that their contracts are done open and honestly and that taxpayers aren’t ultimately left holding the bag.

  10. this shit only matters to the fat fuks living too far fm work in what should be a productive farm field in an exburb

    1. what should be a productive farm field

      How are you making that determination/generalization?

      1. why do developers have to plant trees in the burbs? duh

    2. No this shit matters to people who are too poor to live in a good neighborhood in a center city and send their kids to private school.

      Like all liberals, you fucking hate poor people who don’t have the decency to give up and go on the dole.

      1. convert teh poar to fossil fuelz


  11. Telecommuting. EOM.

    (posted from my iCommuting workstation)

    1. Fuck yeah!

      What drives me nuts, though, is I have worked in the internet industry for nigh on 13 years, where the only reason I ever needed to be in the office was for meetings, and it’s a fucking government job that gives me my first teleworking opportunity.

      All the other companies I worked for loved to feed lines of complete horseshit when asked if we could have teleworking (one memorable one was “we’re afraid you’re going to work too hard from home and burn yourself out!”)

      1. “we’re afraid you’re going to work too hard from home and burn yourself out!”

        “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that overmuch.”

  12. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not understanding what this is talking about – are we saying that HOT lanes are, in essence, the same thing as HOV lanes, except that as a single person in a sedan, I can drive on it if I’m willing to pay a fee, or drive on it for free if I have a passenger? Seems pretty reasonable to me.

    1. I can’t speak for the others, but the Atlanta project has converted stretches of HOV into these ‘pay for access only’. The cars with 2+ occupants have been booted out in favor of paying drivers, of which there are few. Hence the uproar down here.

      1. The HOV lane was created by painting an extra stripe on an existing (already paid for by fuel taxes) stretch of interstate. Then they “partnered” with some cronies and painted more stripes, put up some signs and sensors creating a “public/private” toll lane out of the exact same piece of concrete.

      2. Seems to me that the best system would be to keep the lanes free for HOV drivers, as the point of the lanes was to encourage carpooling, but charge for vehicles with less than the required occupancy.

    2. My mistake. Cars with 3+ drivers can use the lanes for free, along w/ motorcycles, emergency vehicles, etc. But in my defense, HOV lanes here (including those now converted) were 2+.

    3. Yeah, that’s basically the idea. In most cases, the HOT lanes are either new construction or adding new capacity to existing HOV lanes. The Atlanta case appears to be an unusually bad screw job.

      Here in Northern Virginia, they are adding HOT lanes to the Beltway, where there weren’t previously any HOV lanes. Naturally, this is a humongous construction project that has screwed up traffic in an epic fashion.

  13. As a user of the I-10 Houston lanes, I have no complaint. Congestion pricing is affordable, traffic moves very well (for the most part), and one can enter/exit enough so the trip can be shorter or longer as necessary. After initial skepticism about the project, I am thourougly pleased. A huge success, IMHO.

    The silliness about the HOV stuff (it’s free if you have 3 passengers!) is similar to Atlanta’s, but I could care less since I don’t cart other people around for free. I rather pay to not have them.

    1. The Houston lanes were constructed as toll roads, no? They weren’t an existing portion of I-10.

  14. The problem with this kind of “premium pricing” plan is that the option of leaving the system doesn’t exist. It isn’t clear to me that the average user isn’t forced to subsidize the premium users with no way to opt-out completely with these schemes.

  15. See, when I saw “Congestion relief”, I thought this was a good news story about someone fighting the steady removal of Sudafed from the shelves… Got excited there for a moment.

    Then I saw it was a story about traffic. Damn. That one is easy to fix: move out of the city.

  16. An absolutely ‘spot-on’ article in terms of our plans in Oregon for the Coastal Parkway P3 highway to help relieve major congestion in Portland Metro. Area.
    Thank you.

  17. Its funny how some people suggest we should all be greatful for being raped by the Rich?

  18. Pretty sure we have some of those HOT lanes in San Diego too….

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