The Growing Popularity Of 'Pay-To-Drive' Schemes

<p>Drivers are increasingly looking to save not only time but also gas money by utilizing high occupancy toll lanes in cities that have implemented tolls.</p>
June 24, 2007, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Under federal rules, single-occupant vehicles may use HOV lanes on interstate highways as long as tolls are charged." Nine cities are now competing for $1.1 billion in a new federal program call Urban Partnerships to fight congestion - all "have proposed charging tolls that rise and fall based on traffic volume. Winners will be announced by mid-August."

High Occupancy Toll or "HOT lanes work like this: Sensors in the pavement track the number of cars and their driving speed. When traffic slows, computers increase the toll to discourage other cars from entering the lanes. Toll amounts are displayed on huge digital signs and debited from an electronic smart card inside the driver's vehicle. At the height of rush hour, drivers can pay around $3 to $5. Carpoolers, buses and motorcycles still use the lane with no toll.

"I'm removed from the hectic merging, converging and stop-and-go traffic in the regular lanes," brags Karen Stuart, the mayor of Broomfield, Colo., and a consultant for an engineering firm in Denver. She uses HOT lanes that opened last year on I-25 to zip through traffic jams, making her feel safer and giving her an extra 30 minutes at work. To help offset the cost, she skips her usual $3.50 Starbucks Grande Caffe Latte."

"In Minnesota, tolls increase when traffic in the express lanes is moving slower than 50 mph. Drivers pay whatever is shown on the overhead sign just before they enter the lane, even if the price climbs after that. Solo drivers who use HOT lanes without paying -- by driving in the lane without an electronic tag in their car -- can be fined $142 or more.

Linda Koblick, a Hennepin County, Minn., commissioner who helped state transportation officials develop the I-394 project, worried at first that express lanes would cater mostly to drivers "paying an extra $5 just to get there faster, because they have the money and they can," she says. Her mind was changed after a visit to Southern California, where she saw "housewives in minivans having to pick their kids up from day care."

"Barb Green, an accounts-payable employee for a food concession at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, has paid as much as $6 to use the express lane when traffic was particularly brutal. Paying extra is worth it, she says, getting her home sooner to her disabled husband. She's also discovered another benefit: she burns about a quarter of a tank of gas a week, down from a half-tank in the slower-moving regular lanes."

"About 200 miles of express lanes are being planned for some of the worst-moving highways, estimates Peter Samuel, editor of Toll Roads Newsletter. San Diego is spending $1.7 billion to expand the length and width of its existing HOT lanes."
[Ed: Although this article is only available to WSJ subscribers, it is available to Planetizen readers for free through the link below for a period of seven days.]

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