Thursday, August 2, 2007

Tolls could open HOV lanes to solo drivers - Dallas, Houston exploring options for pay as you go

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER - The Dallas Morning News - Friday, July 27, 2007
SUGAR LAND, Texas – Psychologist Anthony Rogers regularly finds himself working in Houston – driving solo and stuck in traffic.

Car-poolers and buses zip by in the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, only furthering his stop-and-go frustration.

"I look over at the HOV lanes and think, 'There's plenty of room over there. I'd be willing to pay to use that lane,' " Mr. Rogers, a San Antonio resident, said as he finished a cup of Starbucks in this booming suburb south of Houston.

He may soon be able to do just that. And by next year, some Dallas drivers will, too.

On Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission gave a hearty amen to Houston-area transit officials' plan to convert five of their six HOV lanes to tolled lanes.

If the plan is approved – and it could be presented to the commission as soon as next month – solo drivers in Harris County, like Mr. Rogers, will be able to pay for an easier commute.

Dallas catching up

HOV lanes are less common in Dallas than in Houston, where their use has steadily expanded for nearly 20 years. But the Dallas area is catching up fast. New HOV lanes will open on Interstate 30 from the Dallas-Tarrant county line to Loop 12 at 6 a.m. Tuesday. Other HOV lanes are set to open this fall along Central Expressway, and an existing lane on the LBJ Freeway will be extended by September, Dallas Area Rapid Transit officials said.

Plans to make Dallas-area HOV lanes paid lanes are in the works. By next year, HOV lanes along I-30 between Arlington and Dallas will become the region's first such paid lanes, TxDOT spokesman Mark Ball said.

Houston plan praised

But Houston's more sweeping proposal to convert all but one of its lanes to pay-as-you-go won enthusiastic response from the Texas Transportation Commission at its meeting in Sugar Land on Thursday.

"This is very visionary, and I think the rest of the state will be watching," said Commissioner Hope Andrade of San Antonio. Other commissioners had similar reactions.

The commission sets highway policy in Texas and governs the Texas Department of Transportation.

The conversion in Houston could cost $50 million and take a year or more, and officials from METRO, the Harris County counterpart to DART, haven't formally decided to make the switch. But plans to do so are far along.

Strong endorsement

Carlos Lopez, traffic operations director for TxDOT, told the commissioners Thursday that a formal request could appear on their agenda as early as August.

"It's almost a no-brainer," Mr. Lopez said after the meeting. HOV lanes have extra capacity, he said, so they should be monetized to let solo drivers pay to use them. Drivers in the regular lanes will benefit, he said, because the paying drivers will be gone.

Dallas-area officials haven't indicated what they'll charge drivers on the new HOV lanes along I-30 when they become paid lanes next year. Lone drivers will likely pay twice as much as two-person car-poolers, and vehicles with three or more passengers will be free, DART officials have said in the past.

It won't be cheap

Solo drivers in Houston will pay a steep price to ride on the HOV lanes.

Mr. Lopez said they'll likely pay as much as $4.50 each way during peak hours. During less busy times, it may be as low as $1.25, he said.

Mr. Lopez cautioned, however, that rates will depend on how popular the lanes are with solo drivers. The top rate will have to be high enough, he said, to prevent too many solo drivers from crowding the lanes.

TxDOT officials said peak pricing in Orange County, a suburban area near Los Angeles, runs as high as $9 each way.

The market rules

Commissioner Ned Holmes said Houston's use of so-called "congestion pricing" to regulate traffic is one of the best aspects of the plan. He said the strategy is a way to use market forces to help regulate traffic.

Not everyone is singing hallelujahs over what critics describe as "Lexus Lanes" for the wealthy, however.

The new lanes, often called High Occupancy Toll, or HOT, lanes, are in use or in the works in a handful of other communities across America, including Northern Virginia.

Arlington County, Va.'s, Chris Hamilton said he's not sold on them. HOV lanes there have worked, and he's worried that allowing solo drivers to use them for a fee will ruin them.

"I am not convinced there is excess capacities in the HOV lanes," said Mr. Hamilton, a frequent blogger about commuting who also works for the county encouraging commuters to car-pool and use transit.

"One person's excess capacity is another person's congestion.

"We're concerned that the new lanes will just lead to more congestion for the folks who are already van-pooling and using transit.

"We don't want those people to get mired into heavy traffic once these hot lanes start."

Officials from Harris County and TxDOT said they'll give the HOT lane idea a lot more study before approving it anywhere in Texas.
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