May 5, 1999
By Dennis Polhill, Chris Baker
Have you ever been stuck in traffic on the freeway only to look over and see a nearly empty car-pool lane? While they may have seemed like a good idea, unfortunately High Occupancy Vehicle lanes are woefully underused. For most of us, carpooling to work is simply impractical, as a result HOV lanes remain near-empty during rush-hour while unrestricted lanes are often bumper-to-bumper.
Colorado Governor Owens is expected to sign legislation that would offer a solution to the problem of low use in HOV lanes, while at the same time reducing traffic congestion. This legislation would allow the conversion of HOV lanes into High Occupancy Toll lanes or HOT lanes.
Simply put, converting HOV lanes into HOT lanes would allow commuters the opportunity pay a toll to use HOV lanes without carpooling. The toll rate would vary to insure that a “free flow” of traffic is sustained. The incentives for carpool formation are unchanged. Carpoolers and buses would have the same free access to these lanes as they do now, but these lanes would no longer be so dramatically underused.
While not widespread, the usage of HOT lanes across the country is growing. On Interstate 15 in San Diego, a HOT lane that opened in 1996 has been hailed a great success by commuters and transportation experts alike.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of HOT lanes is consumer choice. From time to time all of us find ourselves in a situation where time is of the essence only to be stuck in traffic. Therein lies the advantage of a HOT lane. You would have the option of paying a toll to bypass traffic when you needed to and not paying when it wasnt important.
Critics of HOT lanes are fond of calling them Lexus Lanes, implying somehow that only the wealthy will benefit. This implication is incorrect and overlooks certain market fundamentals. Studies of California-91 HOT lanes found virtually no socio-economic difference between users and non-users of the HOT lanes. Non-users of HOT lanes favor them because there is less traffic in the free lanes causing their trip times to decrease.
Clearly some people who can afford to do so will be willing to pay every day to either save time or to increase their personal safety. However, nearly half the users of the California-91 HOT lanes only used it once a week, incurring toll costs that never exceeded more than a few dollars. HOT lanes are more akin to Ford lanes than to Lexus lanes.
HOV lanes were originally conceived as an means to entice Americans to car-pool, thereby reducing pollution that cars emit into the environment. But the unwillingness of commuters to carpool have left these the environmental benefits of HOV lanes largely unrealized. Converting these lanes to HOT lanes will be a significant step towards realizing some environmental benefit.
When traffic congestion exists, air pollution emissions are 250% higher than in free-flowing traffic. By decreasing congestion and increasing the free-flow of traffic, HOT lanes clearly reduce pollution.
As a result, support for HOT lanes comes from all across the political spectrum. Not only do HOT lanes find support from Republican advocates of more highways, but also from environmental groups who see HOT lanes as a legitimate way to reduce pollution emissions from automobiles.
The HOT lane legislation expected to be signed by the Governor calls for the Colorado Department of Transportation to convert one existing HOV lane into a HOT lane as an experimental project. In all likelihood, this will be the HOV lane on I-25 north between downtown Denver and the Boulder Turnpike. If, as expected, this project is a success the concept of HOT lanes should be expanded to other areas as well.
The metropolitan Denver area is straining under the burden of traffic congestion. And the cost of traffic congestion is staggering. Studies have shown that the economic impact of traffic congestion nationally is in the billions of dollars. Used properly, HOT lanes are an effective tool to deal with that congestion.
Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org. Chris Baker writes on state issues for the Institute.
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