Interstates/Highways and Mass Transit and Tolls and Energy & Environment and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

Plan for optional interstate tolls may hit potholes

February 20, 2010

A proposal to add optional toll lanes to parts of Interstates 69 and 65 raises all kinds of questions, such as how to squeeze more lanes into the crowded I-69 corridor northeast of the city.

And it’s debatable whether toll lanes could make more money than they cost to implement. The Central Indiana Transit Task Force asserts they would, and advocates spending the excess on commuter rail or IndyGo bus expansion.

But one thing is clear: Indianapolis leaders won’t have a lack of examples from other cities to consider, including the I-495/Capital Beltway high-occupancy toll, or HOT lanes, being added in Virginia.

About 14 miles of the west side of the belt encircling Washington, D.C., are being expanded with optional toll lanes. They’ll be free to use for buses and cars with more than three occupants—to encourage car-pooling and keep more vehicles off the road—but will charge up to $1 a mile for vehicles with fewer than three occupants.

Virginia officials estimate the average trip will be $5-$6. Rates will be variable, with tolls rising when traffic increases and falling when traffic drops.

Critics have dubbed such lanes “Lexus lanes,” as in a perk for the wealthy.

lanesThe Virginia Department of Transportation counters that a study of express lanes on State Road 91 in California found only 25 percent of those choosing HOT lanes were high-income motorists.

“People of all incomes choose to pay tolls when they need a fast, more reliable travel time, such as when they need to pick up a child from day care or make an important business meeting on time,” VDOT said.

The other prominent form of optional express lane is a pure toll, such as a stretch being added to I-95 near Baltimore, said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation.

The two lanes being added in each direction on the eight-mile stretch will, as in Virginia, assess a toll based on the level of traffic. Tolls will be paid electronically with participating motorists using an EZ Pass transponder. That eliminates the need for toll booths, which cause bottlenecks of their own.

No matter the model, the added lanes tend to reduce congestion, Poole said, at least in the short term. How long the relief lasts depends on how bad the previous congestion was and how bad the parallel alternatives are “unless the express toll lanes are variably priced, and the price is explicitly structured to maintain uncongested traffic flows,” Poole said.

“Thus far, the evidence says that congestion relief is long term with that kind of pricing,” he said. “If that’s what Indiana is planning to do, then that project should provide long-term sustainable congestion relief.”

The Central Indiana Transit Task Force earlier this month included the concept of optional toll lanes on I-69 between I-465 and 116th Street, and on I-65 south to Southport Road.

The Indiana Department of Transportation said it participated in the year-long study, but declined to elaborate. INDOT is proceeding with previous plans to widen I-465 and I-69 on the congested northeast side, spokesman Will Wingfield said.

Adding toll lanes to the busiest section of I-69—from I-465 north to 96th Street—would be a challenge, however. INDOT’s preliminary plan for that eight-lane stretch would add as many as six lanes, some of them to accommodate a collector-distributor system intended to improve through-traffic flow.

Preliminary plans show the new lanes would fall virtually on the doorstep of some commercial buildings along I-69. Some would have to be demolished

And that was even before the proposal to add toll lanes to the mix.

The task force, which included leaders from the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership and Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and a handful of transit consulting firms, said the tolls could not only pay for implementation of the lanes but also generate $10 million in additional annual revenue.

That money could be spent on other transit projects such as bus improvements or commuter rail in the metro area.

That might be a hard case to make.

The “general lesson” from around the country is that HOT lanes resulting primarily from the conversion of high-occupancy vehicle lanes, or HOVs, do produce surplus revenue, which is often used for transit subsidies, Poole said.

But there are no HOV lanes in the metro area.

“HOT or ETLs [express toll lanes] that are new construction at best cover their own costs without producing surplus revenue,” Poole said.

The transit task force also proposes a major expansion of the IndyGo bus system and proceeding with a long-envisioned commuter rail line between downtown and Fishers, as well as a link to Greenwood.

In addition, it proposes a light-rail line that would run on Washington Street.•

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