Some like it HOT: States turning to toll lanes

McClatchy NewspapersApril 16, 2012 

— While support for toll roads isn’t universal, one toll-road concept does have broader appeal.

High occupancy toll lanes, sometimes called express toll lanes, make tolls optional for drivers, who still have access to lanes they don’t have to pay to use. For faster commutes, solo drivers can pay the tolls, which would change with traffic volume. Buses and car pools, however, don’t have to pay to use the faster lanes. Depending on the traffic volume, the tolls could be as little as 10 cents a mile or as much as a dollar.

For state transportation officials, it’s a way of relieving traffic congestion without draining scarce infrastructure funds.

"Infrastructure costs a ton of money now, especially in urban areas," said Steve Titunik, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The first such toll road was California’s Route 91 in Orange County, which opened in the mid-1990s. Since then, the concept has spread to several other cities. While critics once derided them as "Lexus lanes," saying that only those who could afford to pay the toll would use them, the lanes are popular with all kinds of drivers.

"It’s certainly true that frequency of use tends to be higher for high-income people," said Bob Poole, a transportation expert at the libertarian Reason Foundation and a proponent of toll roads. "But lower incomes use them selectively for specific trips when it’s really worth it."

Florida converted an underutilized car-pool lane along Interstate 95 north of Miami to express toll lanes, which began operating in 2008. An extension of the I-95 express lanes is under construction and will open by 2014. Similar projects are proposed for heavily traveled sections of Florida’s other interstate highways, including I-75 and I-4. North Carolina is considering express toll lanes for a busy stretch of I-77 in Charlotte.

Virginia is set to open a 14-mile section of express toll lanes in December on I-495, the notoriously congested Capital Beltway, which encircles Washington.

"Tolls have become a way to make megaprojects happen," Titunik said. "The whole transportation budget would be spent in one area. You’ve got to look for new approaches."

The $1.4 billion project to add four toll lanes to the Beltway could have gobbled up much of Virginia’s transportation budget. Instead, the state paid $500 million to replace 12 interchanges, while two private infrastructure companies, Transurban and Fluor, shouldered the rest. The toll revenues will generate profits for those companies.

Virginia transportation officials point to several benefits: The number of lanes that aren’t tolled will remain the same; the project will add four lanes of capacity; those four lanes will be available toll-free for car pools with drivers and two or more passengers; and commuter buses, which previously didn’t operate on the Beltway, will use the lanes.

Titunik said it was about offering a choice. It may be worth a few extra dollars to plumbers or parents who are picking up children from day care or pharmaceutical sales representatives to get where they’re going faster.

"Everybody uses roads for different reasons," he said. "It’s up to the individual."

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