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Will Economists Be the New Highway Men?

Got road congestion? Pricing in the form of managed (don't call them HOT) lanes makes more sense than new construction, according to a panel of transportation experts led by HNTB Corp., reports James Bruckbauer of Michigan Land Use Institute.
August 30, 2013, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"One of nation’s largest road-building firms, HNTB, recently admitted something transportation advocates have argued for many years: “We can’t build our way out of traffic congestion”, writes Bruckbauer.

For the record, HNTB calls itself an "infrastructure solutions firm". They do more than just road-building, which might explain their "more is not better" approach. Also, they prefer the term, "priced managed lanes" for what have historically been called high-occupancy-toll (HOT) lanes; more recently, express lanes; and by opponents, Lexus lanes.

By whatever name, these are lanes open to all, regardless of occupancy or vehicle-type, though a variable (based on congestion) toll must be paid by single-occupant-vehicles not driving an "exempt" vehicle. The variable tolls are meant to keep traffic flowing "at least 45 miles per hour and customers are guaranteed a predictable, congestion-free trip" according to HNTB's news release

While a Lexus won't grant you special privilege - a Tesla (or any electric vehicle) may allow you to ride toll-free on many of these priced lanes, just as it may allow access to many carpool lanes regardless of number of occupants. For the Bay Area Express Lanes under development by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission"motorcycles, buses and eligible hybrid vehicles" will drive toll-free.

Bruckbauer writes about an article written by HNTB's new Director of Priced Managed Lanes, Matthew Click, that appears in the current issue of their newsletter, Designer (pg. 22, PDF), that advocates for a pricing approach to accommode peak-hour congestion rather than building more general purpose lanes.

"(Click's) point is clear: We can’t build our way out of congestion. In fact, every 10 percent increase in road space generates a 10 percent increase in traffic within several years", writes Bruckbauer.

However, Click doesn't rule out widening highways to accommodate peak hour traffic per se - he just wants the new lanes to be managed with pricing. How different is this approach from the high occupancy vehicle (HOV or carpool) lane building binge that the highway men went on several decades ago?

Click cites a national America THINKS survey that "showed close to three in four drivers (74 percent) would be likely to use the lanes if given the opportunity."

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Published on Thursday, August 22, 2013 in Michigan Land Use Institute
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