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How Have High Occupancy Toll Lanes (HOT) Been Doing?

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How Have High Occupancy Toll Lanes (HOT) Been Doing?

In an earlier article I described high occupancy toll lanes , including arguments for and against. Now that the other HOT lane in Los Angeles - between downtown and El Monte to the east on I-10 - is scheduled to open on February 23, 2013, let me revisit the issue. In this article I will be examining how they have been working - have they been considered successes or failures?

Usage By Cars

While the public may have an initial antipathy towards HOT lanes, over time they grow to use them. For example, in April 2012 there were 3,400 trips on the SR-167 toll lanes in the Seattle suburbs, which was double the usage from April 2009. Revenue has grown 80% and the lanes now operate in the black.

In Denver , usage has grown 35 percent since the HOT lanes opened. Denver originally projected 500 toll payers during the peak hour travel along I-25 but in fact achieved 1,400 in the first year of operation. Use of the I-25 HOT lanes has grown by almost 18 percent since the HOT lanes opened in 2006 and the lanes remain uncongested. Additionally, transit ridership in the HOT lanes has remained high.

After the I-15 express lanes in San Diego were switched from HOV to HOT lanes, traffic in them increased by 143 percent, while in Minneapolis the number of vehicles using the HOT lane on I-394 has increased by 33 percent since the lane's opening in 2005 without degrading use for transit and HOV's. In the lanes, travel speeds of 50-55 mph occur 95% of the time. Minneapolis's success has been supported by surveys showing that 76 percent of the public is satisfied with the HOT lanes, and 85 percent are satisfied with the traffic speed.

In Atlanta, numbers provided by the State Road and Tollway Authority, which operates the lanes, show that average weekday trips jumped to 16,916 in September 2012 from 7,273 in October 2011, with monthly trips showing a corresponding increase to 429,964 from 159,799. Despite the increase, the HOT lanes are still not paying for themselves and are not expected to do so until 2016.

Usage By Transit

Bus service exists on all HOT lanes, and service provided is almost exclusively express service. Of the 121 bus routes using American HOT lanes in early 2012, only four were local routes. Most HOT lanes have extensive networks of Park and Ride lots . While there are a lot of bus routes, there is very little weekend or reverse-peak direction service, which makes it not really useful to non-commuters. The Metro Silver Line in Los Angeles is an exception, running from early morning to late at night seven days per week. It has even seen weekend service improvements recently, and is branded as if it were a rail line. Overall, transit on HOT lanes is not as marketed as well as it could be; for example, only one HOT lane website – in Miami – provides any information about available transit options.

Bus ridership on HOT lanes varies widely, ranging from a low of about 450 on the SR-91 toll lanes in Orange County, CA to 14,840 on the I-25 HOT lanes in Denver. On average, the load factor of HOT lane buses is about 23, or half-full when you consider that many agencies operate highway coaches, which have more seats, on these routes. Much of the ridership difference can be explained by the level of service provided: there are only 39 trips a day on SR-91 versus 434 trips a day in Denver.

Can transit on HOT lanes play a bigger role than merely offering commuters from distant suburbs a quicker ride into downtown? I do not think so for two reasons. First, since HOT lanes are in the middle of the freeway they provide the same obstacle to transit as if rail lines were in the middle of the freeway – poor pedestrian access and no room for transit-oriented development . Second, most HOT lanes have very few access and egress points, which makes them useless for bus lines that would only need to traverse them for a few miles.

Effect of HOT Lanes on Transit

It has been hypothesized that HOT lane creation may have a negative impact on transit ridership due to the fact that bus riders currently enjoying the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane can now enjoy it in their car. Studies have been mixed on this issue, with one showing that 4.1% of transit riders in HOV lanes switched to driving when the lane was converted to HOT and another one showing ridership actually increasing in Minneapolis when an HOV lane was converted to HOT. I would imagine any impact on ridership to be minor and highly dependent on the level of transit service provided. Another thought is that HOT lanes may harm transit by increasing traffic in the former HOV lanes, thereby causing transit reliability to suffer. Lanes that are priced optimally to ensure free-flow traffic have not had this problem.

Two positive ways that HOT lanes can impact transit lay in the areas of funding and attention. In terms of funding, HOT lane creation often involves paying for transit increases to allay equity concerns. Since many HOT lanes are not currently paying for themselves, the amount of revenue available for transit so far has been small but I expect that to increase in the future. Perhaps the best way that HOT lanes affect transit is the increased amount of attention they bring to transit. To this day there are few better arguments for transit than seeing a bus fly by at 55 mph in the HOT lane while you are stuck in gridlock in the regular lane.

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