(Houston, TX –– Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Houston is planning to let solo drivers pay to drive in a special, faster lane, for the right price. The plan is expected to reduce traffic overall, though it raises some equity concerns that rich drivers can buy a faster commute while everyone else pays the price.
In its latest budget, Metro put aside $20 million in federal funds to turn 84 miles of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. That means cars with just one person in them will be able to pay a fee to access the HOV lane and skip the stop and go traffic. The lanes be controlled by a transit agency, not the Harris County Toll Road Authority, the agency normally in charge of toll roads in the area.
Houston Metro president and CEO George Greanias says the existing HOV lanes are practically empty around 80 percent of the time. "With the exception of just some peak periods, there’s usually additional capacity there that’s not getting used," says Greanias. "In the meantime, you’ve got the lanes adjacent to HOV lanes that are congested due to all the heavy traffic."
Carpools, vanpools, and buses will be able to
continue using the lane for free. The toll price for single occupancy vehicles (SOVs) will vary depending on demand, and if the average speed on the HOT lane falls below 50 miles per hour, Metro may close it off to single motorists completely because slow moving traffic would defeat the purpose. And Vince Obregon, vice president of capital program implementation at Metro, stresses that the agency's top priority will always be providing a fast lane for high occupancy vehicles.
Still, critics claim HOT lanes only provide relief for solo motorists with cash to spare. They argue drivers on a tight budget will be left stranded in traffic simply because they can’t afford the toll. But Greanias says with another lane available, it’s actually a win-win. "Even somebody who doesn’t use the lane will benefit if we get some of the cars off some of the regular lanes," says Greanias. "Then the people who don’t want to pay the toll or don’t feel they should or can, will have a little more room on the regular roads."
Alan Clark, the director of transportation and air quality programs for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, says freeing up highways by offering alternatives like HOT lanes has the added benefit of cleaning up the air, because cars sitting idle in traffic release pounds of extra air pollutants. "If you’re traveling five or 10 miles an hour, a lot of that burnt fuel is just wasted," says Clark. Of course we’re just talking about a single lane on each freeway, so the impact on congestion and the environment may only be slight. Still, Clark believes the switch to HOT lanes will be a positive change: "It takes a lot of these kinds of steps to make a big difference… we want to take advantage of all of them."
The money that’s generated from the HOT lanes will be spent on the upkeep of the tolling facilities, which will be automated. Metro says its current projections show no net revenue from the lanes. But if there is anything left over, Metro will be splitting it with the Texas Department of Transportation. Officials say the agency just hopes to break even.
The first HOT lane, along I-45 south, is scheduled to open in January 2012.