Popularity of Express Lanes Spreads Beyond Virginia

Dan Vock of Governing takes a broad look at congestion pricing, beginning with the success of Virginia's 66 Express Lanes, the ones where tolls initially topped $40. Notwithstanding complaints, managed lanes are spreading, but challenges remain.

7 minute read

April 3, 2018, 10:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Virginia Freeway

Doug Kerr / Flickr

[Updated April 4, 2018] Virginia under former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and then-Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne (now Virginia Secretary of Finance) was among the most ambitious states at pursuing public-private partnerships to build and operate high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, now more commonly referred to as managed or express lanes. The lanes generally apply congestion (or dynamic) pricing whereby tolls increase with the level of congestion to maintain minimum travel speeds on the tolled lanes, as opposed to charging a flat fee.

[Correspondent's note: This is a long read as the Vock's piece is most comprehensive. For background on the 66 Express Lanes, see Planetizen, Feb. 2016: "Compromise Struck: Virginia Will Widen I-66 Inside the Beltway." The tolls topped $40 on day two of operation, gathering national media attention.]

Daniel C. VockGoverning’s transportation and infrastructure reporter, describes the management of express lanes by Transurban, a private Australian company that manages and develops urban toll road networks in Australia and North America. Working with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), Transurban built and operates the 495 and 95 Express Lanes.

Like the I-66 tolls, the rates on Transurban’s lanes are not capped, which theoretically means they could go just as high as they have on the neighboring interstate. 

The process of calculating tolls, though, takes place in a back room, somewhere out of sight, where servers crunch real-time data on traffic conditions. The goal is to spit out toll rates that will keep traffic cruising in the toll lanes at a breezy 60 mph...The goal of keeping traffic moving at 60 mph in the toll lanes is a federal requirement.

The Federal Highway Administration's Managed Lanes: A Primer, lists "raising the toll rate on a priced facility to maintain a speed of 60 mph" as one of three lane management strategies. However, under its "Guidance on High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Facility Lanes," which includes managed lanes, it indicates that 45 mph is the minimum.

Notwithstanding significant political backlash (see final sub-heading below), congestion pricing of freeways is enjoying success throughout the country. There are now "40 of them now in 15 metropolitan areas, the vast majority of which opened in the last decade," notes Vock. 


Congestion pricing starts with William Vickrey, the so-called “father of congestion pricing,” adds Vock.

In 1963, Vickrey, by then a professor at Columbia University, laid out the case for congestion pricing on New York’s bridges. He questioned why New York officials let drivers cross older East River bridges for free because the bridges were “paid for,” but charged tolls on newer bridges... “The delusion still persists,” Vickrey wrote...

In addition to congestion pricing of toll lanes, there is cordon area pricing, as applied in London since 2003. The Move NY cordon plan which would have tolled the East River bridges as well as Manhattan south of 60th Street. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) has moved away from the Fix NYC cordon plan and now favors value capture rather than cordon tolls to fund subway repair, though he is sticking with the ride-hailing fee component.

The nation's first express lanes were in the median of State Route 91 in Orange County, opening 1995. "Although a private consortium built and originally ran the toll road, Orange County took it over in 2003 and kept the congestion pricing. The project gave transportation planners a real-life example of how the abstract idea of congestion pricing might work for roadways," adds Vock.

Federal transportation policy opens door to more tolling in 1991

The landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, known affectionately as ISTEA (pronounced ice-tea), "let states use congestion pricing to set tolls on federally backed highways," writes Vock.

Congress has long prohibited states from adding tolls to existing interstate lanes, but it did start allowing states to convert carpool lanes into toll lanes. It also let states toll newly added lanes along those interstates. 


"The American Trucking Associations has long favored raising fuel taxes to pay for better roads rather than imposing new tolls," writes Vock. The trucking group is a member of the formidable Alliance for a Toll-Free Interstate, both noted in a 2014 post on how to pay for interstate highway improvements.

Lexus Lanes

Coined by California state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) mocked the tolls on SR-91, calling them "Lexus lanes." The equity argument holds to this day. One of the most compelling rebuttals was written by Joe Cortright of City Observatory (posted here), who used census data to rebut in inequity charge in regards to plans to apply congestion pricing to two Portland metro freeways. In addition, he claimed:

A system that shifts more of the cost of the road system to peak hour users is fairer and more progressive than one that ignores mode and time of travel, as today’s road finance system largely does.

Not every new lane a toll lane

"Matthew Click, an expert on managed lanes for the construction engineering company HNTB, has reviewed dozens of congestion pricing proposals," writes Vock. "Most times, he says, the projects aren’t feasible."

From a practical standpoint, an area has to have enough of a traffic problem -- measured by distance, density and duration -- to make congestion pricing workable. 

It may be that congestion pricing is more of an urban transportation strategy than one applied universally.

HOT Lanes, carpools, and clean air vehicles

Many express lanes that allow carpools to travel toll-free, i.e., HOT lanes, are increasing the requirement to a minimum of three vehicle occupants from two, referred to as HOV 3+ and HOV 2+, in order to decrease toll lane congestion and prevent tolls from escalating so high they make national headlines.

VDOT plans to do just that with the 66 Express Lanes. Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, would go further, abolishing "carpool exception completely, something that toll roads in the Austin and Baltimore areas have already done," adds Vock.

When VDOT converted the new I-66 high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which opened last October, to HOT lanes in December, they eliminated the exemption for what they generically call "hybrid vehicles," those with Clean Special Fuel plates. In California, which has the nation's most electric vehicles, revenue from Bay Area express lanes is greatly diminished due to clean air vehicles as well as carpools.

 OversubscriptionLow tolls = low speed due to congestion

"That’s part of the problem in the Salt Lake City area, where Utah officials hoped to keep traffic in the Interstate 15 toll lanes at 55 mph," writes Vock. "Tolls there have been capped at $1 [per zone], and average speeds at peak times have dropped to 31 mph. State leaders are considering doubling -- or even tripling -- the maximum toll." 

The same problem exists with the  I-405 Express Toll Lanes in the Seattle area, a pilot project. Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) capped the toll at $10. Consequently, lane speeds have been reduced due to their popularity, and now they face possible elimination because of failure to maintain an average speed of 45 mph or faster, 90 percent of the time during peak periods. As of February, the future of the lanes remains uncertain.

Also see Planetizen, "Fatal Flaw of Express Lanes," September 2016.


One of the advantages of a HOT lane over an HOV lane is that anyone can use the lane. No need for a solo-driver in a rush to risk an expensive ticket ($490 in California) by using the carpool lane if in a rush. But the carpool exemption for toll lanes opens the door another type of cheating, notes Vock.

People will set their transponders to carpool mode even if they have no other passengers in the car. On the toll lanes of Los Angeles’ 110 freeway, for example, it is estimated that 25 to 30 percent of drivers are in the lanes illegally.

Political backlash

Among all the challenges, Vock sees this one as the most formidable. The $40+ tolls did indeed create waves.

“This is unacceptable. We call on VDOT to change this policy,” said state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun County, also a congressional candidate, in a report for WTOP on Dec. 7, 2017. "Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne told WTOP that’s not happening," 

However, toll backlash in the Lone Star State resulted in the Texas Transportation Commission eliminating 15 express lane projects from the state's 10-year capital plan last December.

Hat tip to Steve Birdlebough.

Related reading from Dan Vock: "As Gas-Tax Profits Decline, More States May Turn to Tolls," January 30, 2017 in Governing and posted here.

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