I have always had a keen interest in history. When I started working in the toll road business I discovered that my history professors had skipped some really fascinating stuff. For example, who would have thought that Manifest Destiny involved settlers in the 1800’s paying tolls to get their wagons and livestock across the country? When giving presentations I often use the following video clip to highlight this little known fact. http://youtu.be/SbWg-mozGsU.
Most people see this clip from Blazing Saddles and think it’s absurd. But in reality there were hundreds of toll roads, many of them privately operated, in the United States in the 1800’s. I could write an entire blog about the history of tolls roads in the United States, but since the MoPac Improvement Project is an Express Lane project I thought a brief history of Express Lanes might be a little more appropriate.
In the 1990’s transportation experts began to realize that High Occupancy Vehicle or carpool lanes had an Achilles’ heel. They didn’t manage traffic very well. Some were congested and some were underutilized. So they came up with the concept of a High Occupancy Toll or HOT Lane. A private consortium involving Cofiroute, a French toll road operator, opened the first HOT lanes on SR 91 (Riverside Freeway) outside Los Angeles in 1995. According to Wikipedia it was the first private toll road project to be built in the United States since the 1940’s. (However, to be fair, the privately built Dulles Greenway in Virginia also opened that year).
To maximize use of the new Express Lanes, but prevent congestion, individual drivers were allowed to use the lanes if they paid a variable toll. The toll rates changed every hour according to a pre-established rate schedule that was based on historic traffic volumes. In 1996, the San Diego Area Council of Governments launched a pilot program that allowed 500 single occupant drivers to pay $50 per month for a permit allowing them to use the I-15 carpool lanes. Then in 1998 the program was changed to allow all single occupant drivers to use the carpool lanes. A variable toll that went up and down in real time with changing traffic conditions was used to keep the lanes free flowing.
Meanwhile in Houston, the carpool lanes on I-10 (Katy Freeway) west of downtown were suffering from operational challenges. Under a 2+ scenario, allowing anyone with two people in the car to use the lanes, the lanes were backing up. When the requirement was increased to 3+ the lanes became underutilized. To address the problem Houston Metro, which operated the lanes began allowing carpoolers with just two people in the car to use the lane if they paid a $2.00 toll.
From these early pilot projects the number of carpool lanes converted to tolled Express Lanes began to grow. Minneapolis led the way, followed in no particular order by Miami, Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland and Salt Lake City. In all of these cases, roadway operators converted their existing high occupancy vehicle lanes to Tolled Express Lanes, allowing solo drivers to pay a toll if they wanted to use them. Because of Federal requirements all of these new Express Lanes continued to allow car poolers to ride for free, although in many cases the occupancy requirement was increased to 3+. As I noted in my last blog, MoPac is not a conversion of an existing carpool lane, and while carpooling will be encouraged, drivers who carpool will still have to pay a toll.
Today the conversion of existing high occupancy vehicle lanes to express lanes continues at a rapid pace, but the latest trend is to construct brand new Express Lanes. The I-10 Katy Freeway was among the first major Express Lane construction projects in the country. Since then major projects have been undertaken on I-595 in Fort Lauderdale, I-4 in Orlando, I-495 and I-95 in Washington D.C., I-95 in Maryland, and on the North Tarrant Expressway, I-635 and I-35 in Dallas, just to name a few. MoPac is next in line to follow these major projects.
Some of these mega projects are being financed, built, and operated by the private sector under concession agreements. Others are being undertaken by public agencies like the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. The bottom line is Express Lanes are becoming an increasingly popular way to provide an option for reliable travel on highly congested roadways like MoPac.