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Metro Traffic May Get HOT HOT HOT

Opinion Editorial
June 15, 2003

By Jon Caldara

Would you believe that there’s a way to guarantee a highway lane never gets jammed? If there was such a congestion-free lane, would you pay a buck to ride on it?

About a decade ago, high occupancy vehicle lanes were constructed on Interstate 25 north of Denver. This was part of a larger national movement based on a false hope that people could be persuaded to jump on buses or organize carpools. In reality, carpooling has declined dramatically since most HOV lanes were built.

But what an advantage those few HOV users have. Buses and carpools now get out of traffic and fly in and out of Denver. And because buses have quick headways (i.e., they can be launched from a station as often and as quickly as needed), the Boulder-Denver run is arguably the best regional transit corridor in the nation.

But when you are driving alone – the overwhelming choice for most commuters – notice that there’s almost no one in the carpool lanes.

During peak rush hour, the north I-25 HOV lanes are only at about 30 percent capacity. So you get to sit in a parking lot while just a few feet away asphalt goes unused. Not a good thing for your blood pressure, but also not good for air quality, since the most pollution is generated in stop-and-go traffic.

San Diego had a very similar situation on I-15, where there’s an eight- mile HOV corridor that few commuters used. So they tried something different. Now, for a toll, solo drivers can cruise those underutilized lanes. By doing so, they turned HOV lanes into HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes.

But if carpool lanes are open to anyone willing to pay, won’t they clog with traffic, too? No. Because unlike old-fashioned toll roads, the price of using HOT lanes changes depending on how many vehicles are using them. As more solo drivers choose to pay to get out of traffic and into the HOT lane, the toll increases, discouraging too many drivers from using it.

In San Diego, HOT lanes’ prices change every few minutes, with the price posted on electronic roadway signs. Of course, carpools and buses continue using the lanes for free.

So everyone in the HOT lanes moves at full speed. Guaranteed. Think of it as traffic insurance. If you need to get out of the jam, you can. And the more people who do, the fewer cars there are in the general-purpose lanes, helping alleviate traffic there. Nobody loses.

Ever notice how many folks cheat and drive alone in the carpool lane? Haven’t you wanted to? After the conversion to HOT lanes in San Diego, the violation rate dropped by more than 60 percent. Seems the cheaters will pay, if only they have the opportunity.

But what about traffic-slowing toll booths? They are not used on HOT lanes. Instead, an electronic transponder on your windshield records the toll. Denver-area commuters know how this works on E-470 with the “EXpress Toll.” The money raised goes to service the HOT lanes. That is, the motorists who benefit from the fast-moving lanes, and not taxpayers, pay to maintain and expand them. As Colorado deals with budget shortages, HOT lanes present an opportunity for new roads to be built without raising taxes or cutting programs.

Transit users and carpoolers are the big winners because they still use the fast lanes for free. But as single occupants voluntarily pay for the maintenance and expansion of HOT lanes, bus riders and carpoolers may get lengthened busways that transit agencies will not have to build.

Maybe you’ve heard HOT lanes called “Lexus Lanes,” giving the impression that only the rich use them to get out of traffic. Experiences with other HOT lanes paint a vastly different picture.

A survey done by the regional government in San Diego showed that commuters there want more HOT lanes over any other infrastructure improvement, i.e., creating new roads or widening existing roads or building rail lines.

More detailed data comes from California State Highway 91 in Orange County, where HOT lanes are used by rich and poor at the same levels. Why? For working folks, paying $2 to get to daycare on time to avoid a $20 penalty is a no-brainer.

HOT lanes save lives. Given that they are never congested, emergency vehicles will never be slowed down by a traffic jam.

In California and Texas, carpooling and bus useage increased after HOT lanes were implemented, contrary to the fears expressed by many. Congestion never occurred on the HOT lanes, contrary to warnings that they might be overrun. Congestion even decreased in the general-purpose lanes. HOT lanes are a win-win proposition.

A couple of years ago, the Colorado legislature passed a bill requiring the Department of Transportation to convert the north I-25 HOV lanes to HOT lanes if practical. The project is moving as fast as bureaucrats and politicians will allow: terribly slowly. Still, you should be able to see congestion-free lanes by 2005. And when folks in Colorado get a taste of guaranteed congestion-free lanes, they may well demand them on all our highways.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute in Golden. He lives in Boulder.