National Boards > General Highway Talk

How can we get the most bang for our transportation buck?


Stephane Dumas:
I spotted this interesting exterpt from  I don't know where to post it      :-/ sorry for the inconvience 

--- Quote ---Afternoon rush hour finds thousands of cars and trucks plodding along at 15 miles per hour on the “free”  lanes of Route 91 in Orange County, California. Just a few feet away, on a 10-mile stretch of median road called the 91 Express Lanes, toll-paying motorists fly by at 65 miles per hour. Pricing the roads on an hourly basis allows the 91 Express Lanes to maintain speedy traffic and carry 33 percent more cars per hour than regular lanes.

Twenty years ago, keeping rush-hour speeds at free-flow levels (i.e., 55 miles per hour or faster) in Southern California would have been unimaginable. Now advances in electronic tolling allow governments and private companies to change prices in real time based on traffic levels. Prices increase during congested times to encourage travelers to choose other routes and fall during uncongested times to encourage more use.

In 1989, after the state passed pioneering legislation crafted on ideas first proposed a year earlier by the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole, the California Private Transportation Company built and began operating the 91 Express Lanes. Unfortunately, the company’s principal shareholder, Kiewit, decided to leave the toll road business, and the profitable roads were eventually sold in 2003 to the Orange County Transportation Authority. They still turn a profit for the county and even fund public transit along the corridor.

Every three months, the transportation authority sets new prices for each hour of the day, based on the average hourly traffic volume. The price swings can be dramatic. During rush hour, lanes can cost as much as $1 per mile. At off-peak times, the price per mile can be as low as 12 cents.

Toll rates also change depending on the day of the week. On weekends the lanes are lightly traveled, so the transportation authority sets rates lower during the same period when they might be high on another day. For eastbound traffic in April 2008, a toll at 4 p.m. varied from $2.30 on Sunday for the 10-mile stretch to $8.50 on Thursday or Friday. For westbound traffic, tolls varied from $1.85 to $2.75 for the same time period on different days.

Variable rate tolling is essential because users value free-flow speeds, not the traffic volume prized by too many road planners and engineers. While maximum throughput could be achieved by allowing average speeds to fall to 45 miles per hour, the service that customers are actually willing to pay for is quick access to their jobs, homes, and appointments. Many also pay the premium for the added certainty provided by the reliable express lanes.

Variable pricing provides another increasingly important benefit: It helps identify the sections of the road network in greatest need of new capacity. In effect, it’s a market test for the viability of new road investments. The more tolls can cover the costs of new facilities, the more viable the projects should be.


Orange County’s 91 Express Lanes may be the most heralded example of variable pricing in the U.S., but it’s not the most advanced. The I-15 express lanes north of San Diego were created about the same time as the ones in Orange County, under the same bill. But the I-15 project uses realtime pricing to maintain free-flow speeds. Two reversible lanes in the median of the freeway allow for uninterrupted traffic along an eight-mile corridor. Southbound traffic toward San Diego begins at 5:45 a.m. At noon, the direction of the traffic flow is reversed to accommodate northbound traffic toward Riverside County. Car pools and public transit buses use the lanes for free, but solo drivers pay a toll that’s billed electronically.

The I-15 Express Lanes is one of the first cases in which high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes have been converted into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. Minneapolis converted a section of I-394 into a privately operated HOT lane, where variable pricing maintains free-flow speeds. Denver, Salt Lake City, and Houston also have HOT lanes open and running. One of the most ambitious projects is a 56-mile HOT lane outside heavily congested Washington, D.C., on the I-95 and the I-395 beltway in Northern Virginia. Two private companies, Fluor and Transurban, combined to win the $1 billion contract from the Virginia Department of Transportation, based on toll revenues generated by solo drivers paying a premium to drive on uncongested lanes. Eighteen other cities are planning or implementing HOT lane proposals.

Public agencies simply don’t have enough money to pay for many of these projects, nor can they borrow at the levels necessary to finance them. So policy makers have brought in private capital to pay for anywhere from 25 percent to 100 percent of construction costs on these projects. The tolls generate enough revenue to cover road maintenance and pay back both private investors and public bondholders.


Up to 30 percent of congestion in urban central business districts is caused by vehicles cruising around looking for curb parking, according to Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles. In his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup recommended that cities price parking to reflect market demand, recognizing that the best spots should cost the most. Shoup believes that only about 85 percent of curbside spaces should be filled at any given time, leaving enough spots empty that drivers can readily find parking rather than circle blocks searching and creating more congestion. As demand changes, so would prices, so that some spaces probably would always be empty. New meters would be required, but they would pay for themselves.

Anchorage, Alaska, and Portland, Oregon have adopted the 85 percent target and are using demand-driven pricing to achieve the goal. Two California municipalities, San Francisco and Redwood City, also price their parking spots according to desirability, although they have not adopted an explicit 85 percent occupancy target.

Shoup also advocates cash-out programs for employee parking. In these schemes, rather than pay for employees’ parking spaces as a benefit, employers give workers a cash amount roughly equivalent to the value of the subsidy, to spend however they want. A handful of California companies who tried the system found that when employees faced an explicit cash parking cost to weigh against the benefit of driving, the number driving to work fell by 13 percent on average.

These ideas are not without problems. Drivers, who are also voters, are never happy to start paying for something they thought they were getting for free, a fact that obviously doesn’t escape the elected officials who determine parking policy. Downtown merchants object because free city-provided parking helps draw business.

There are also pressures to overprice or undersupply parking. The “demand management”  culture found in most transportation agencies sees parking as a problem in that it enables driving, which is the behavior planners are always trying to reduce. Parking policies often function as a tool for discouraging mobility, rather than a crucial adjunct to the road network that could be tweaked to produce significantly less congestion.

That said, market-based parking prices have worked in many places that have tried them. Such a scheme in Old Town Pasadena, California, not only reduced congestion but improved access to, and total spending in, the shopping and entertainment district.


Most of the people causing gridlock in Manhattan don’t even want to be on the island in the first place. Many drivers are merely passing through the borough on their way to destinations outside or on the outskirts of the world’s most famous chunk of bedrock.

The local roadway network, unfortunately, does not allow them to bypass one of the country’s most congested city centers. Instead, motorists are crammed together, crosstown travelers with locals. Many become box blockers, drivers who effectively close intersections when the traffic backs up, preventing cross traffic from moving through.

Few U.S. cities pose a bigger challenge to adding physical road capacity than New York City, Manhattan in particular. Many people, including elected officials and transportation planners, simply presume that the capacity cannot be increased, so they rely exclusively on transit and law enforcement approaches to manage traffic and “tame”  bad driver behavior. Despite their learned pessimism, several opportunities exist to add physical road space in Manhattan and other dense urban areas where right of way is scarce and expensive.

In many cities across the world, including Beijing, Paris, and Washington, commuters can avoid stopping at intersections by either driving over or under them using “queue jumpers” –short elevated or underground roads. In New York, the Murray Hill Tunnel already serves this function, allowing express traffic to bypass the locals. The tunnel, which carries two lanes of car traffic from East 33rd Street to East 41st Street, is a great way to avoid the congestion on Park Avenue.

Queue jumpers and tunnels often make sense in dense urban spaces and neighborhoods, as well as areas constrained by environmentally sensitive surface factors, because they operate within existing rights of way. Thus the use of eminent domain is limited, which is a major benefit in streamlining construction and honoring property rights alongside major thoroughfares.

Cities such as Paris, Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo, and even Tampa, Florida, have upgraded beyond queue jumpers to provide longer underground and above-ground motorways. While much of a metropolitan area is packed with subway and train tunnels and other utilities, elevated facilities need only airspace. Furthermore, on the western edge of Manhattan, there are no serious underground obstructions from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge that would prevent building express intersection bypasses. Various east-west streets are also free of subway tunnels. And as Frank Sinatra sang, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere
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Revive 755:
A good way?  Change some of the rules so projects don't have to waste quite as much money on study after study after study, especially when the newer studies tend to be flawed.  Just consider some of the screw ups around St. Louis, particularly I-55 in Jefferson County.  First study called for widening from Rte M to US 67 (eight lanes to at least Rte Z, I think six down to US 67).  More recent study, involving the Metropolitan Planning Organization, called for something like eight lanes down to Rte Z, six to the Herculaneum Exit, and then only auxiliary lanes between Rte A and US 67.  Now I believe the plan is for eight lanes from Rte M to the Herculaneum Exit, and six down to US 67.  Maybe if the planners had actually driven I-55, they would have seen right away that at least six lanes are needed down to US 67.

Then there was the flawed Cross County Study for St. Louis, which didn't recommend any sort of better connection between I-170 and I-44, nor an extension of River des Peres Blvd, but a light rail line instead to serve southern St. Louis County.  The next study on finishing the light rail line to South County found the line would run into major park land impacts or high costs from parallel an active BNSF line.  In addition, the River des Peres Blvd extension is back, and just awaiting funding (and probably some design work, otherwise I think it should have been a stimulus project).  So how much money was wasted on the initial Cross County study for flawed recommendations that could have been put towards actual construction?


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