Recently I’ve received a number of inquiries about the MoPac Express Lanes and whether people who carpool will be able to use them for free. I hadn’t planned to start talking about how the Express Lanes will operate during this stage of construction, but it’s an interesting topic with a lot of passionate opinions, so I thought why not.
Many of you are probably familiar with the old High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) or carpool lanes that were constructed in major cities over the last few decades. The goal of these lanes was to try to manage congestion by reducing the number of cars on the road. Across the country, there are a wide range of views regarding the value of traditional carpool lanes. Some people love them, some people hate them, and some people try just about anything to drive alone and still be able to use the carpool lane.
The issue of whether to allow carpoolers to drive toll free was studied and debated extensively during development of the MoPac Improvement Project. Based on our findings and a significant amount of public dialogue, it was decided that toll free travel would be limited to public transit buses, registered van pools, emergency vehicles and military vehicles. That doesn’t mean people won’t carpool. In fact, the ability to split the cost of the toll should actually encourage more people to ride together. And, best of all the Mobility Authority won’t have to worry about whether there are any dummies using the Express Lane.
While only a small number of people may put a mannequin in the passenger seat as a way to try and get a free ride, the issue of carpool enforcement is actually serious business. Smart minds have developed a whole bunch of ways to try and ensure that people are actually carpooling, but almost every option costs money and involves some degree of the honor code.
For example, several agencies now offer a TxTag type device that has a switch. When you are driving alone you switch the tag to solo mode, and when you have other people in the car, you switch to the “I Drive for Free” carpool mode. You can probably imagine the scene on the side of the road. “Honest officer, I forgot to switch the tag back to solo mode!” And that’s just one scenario. Regardless of how you enforce occupancy, it’s expensive and almost always involves paying a bunch of police officers to sit by the side of the road to try and pull over people who are violating the occupancy requirement. And on Express Lanes like we’re building on MoPac, that wouldn’t be easy. So the question becomes, why bother when people are likely to carpool anyway to save money?
Another problem with carpool lanes is while they can increase the movement of people, they aren’t a particularly good way to maximize roadway use while still ensuring reliable travel times. In some cases, they are over utilized and become congested. But in most places, they are underused, frustrating drivers who must sit in the adjacent heavily congested lanes. In response to these issues, Tolled Express Lanes with variable tolls have been growing in popularity.
In California, just about every existing carpool lane in the state is in the process of being converted to a Tolled Express Lane. The variable tolls allow agencies to better manage traffic and maximize use of the old carpool lanes without causing them to become congested.
In places like Austin where completely new lanes are being built, the trend has been to minimize the number of vehicles that can use the lanes toll free. This is important, not only because it improves traffic management, simplifies enforcement, and reduces operating costs, but also because it provides a more reliable stream of toll revenue. And this is critical, since many new Express Lanes being built around the country are being funded with borrowed money, and a consistent stream of revenue is needed to repay that debt. As part of the financing on MoPac, the Mobility Authority is obligated to deposit $230 million into a regional infrastructure fund over the next 25 years. Money from that fund will be allocated by the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board and used to pay for other regional transportation projects, such as improving Interstate 35.
So, whether you think carpool lanes are the best thing ever or you believe they are a social engineering experiment gone awry, at least now you know why we won’t have to worry if a bunch of crash test dummies or inflatable dolls decide to take a ride in the MoPac Express Lanes.