Wednesday 27 August 2014

Will Dallas have the world's largest HOT lane network?

Dallas News reports on plans from the North Texas Tollway Authority, North Central Texas Council of Governments and Texas DoT to embark on a major expansion of tolling in the city.  This includes not only including tolls on all major new projects, but retrofitting HOT lanes on existing highways and converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes where feasible.

The report includes a map depicting an extensive network of future toll lanes (which I suspect means HOT lanes) which will mean the city will possibly have the largest such network of any such city in the world.

DallasNews map of current and proposed tolling network
The article cites the existing toll lane network as including:
- LBJ Freeway (map here)

Planned toll lanes:

HOV lanes replaced with HOT lanes:
- Central Expressway
- I-30 east of downtown
- I-35E south of downtown
- US highway 67

The lanes are expected to enable traffic to be managed during major sporting events or catastrophes, as they can serve as emergency vehicle lanes in such conditions.  

 Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments talked of the problems with a 1985 air crash at DFW “In that case, it was difficult for all of the ambulances and firetrucks to get where they needed to go”.

Opposition comes from politicians in Collin County, which opposes converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes, largely because of a belief that there are enough tolled routes in the county.

What's telling about this report is how pervasive and extensive the proposed network will be.  It will mean that for perhaps the majority of Dallas motorists, the option of paying to use a lane will be the norm for their trips.  

My views on HOT lanes are based on considering the total economic and financial costs and benefits:

- Converting an underutilised HOV lane to a HOT lane increases utility, raises revenue, significantly reduces congestion for its users, and marginally reduces congestion for non-HOT lane users, so it is likely to be beneficial.

- Building a new HOT lane is almost always never going to be financially viable, because the capital costs of the additional lane are unlikely to be recovered from the peak users. A pure toll lane may be marginally more likely to be viable, but again it will only be where congestion is chronically bad that sufficient users will be prepared to pay enough to pay for the extra capacity.

- Toll lanes are likely to be more beneficial than HOV lanes, as HOV lanes tend to provide free benefits to couples travelling together as much as incentivising car pooling.  Far better to ration by price than rewarding chance.

- In the longer term, their value is in demonstrating what pricing can deliver, but if they are not financially viable it means a better solution is to price the whole network, appropriately, which includes looking at the role of fuel taxes.