Transportation Policy

Unblocking the Box

Congestion relief may be coming soon to a city near you

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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.