Despite the leveling off of traffic congestion as reported in the 2009 Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) and discussed in this issue, the average traveler still needs 25 percent more time for trips.
Like their constituencies, local communities are stretching their traveling dollars further during difficult economic times. One way they are doing that is by finding innovative uses for the capacity they already have.
For the past 30 years or so, high-occupancy vehicle (or HOV) lanes have encouraged commuters to use alternatives, like taking a bus to work or carpooling with co-workers, which ultimately helps improve both air quality and traffic congestion. High occupancy toll (HOT) lanes represent the next step in the evolution of the high-occupancy concept.
“HOT lanes allow drivers to pay a toll and still use the HOV lane, even if they don’t have enough passengers to meet the HOV requirements,” explains Senior Research Engineer Ginger Goodin, manager of TTI’s Austin Office. Goodin is principal investigator on a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) project developing a toolkit of resources for use in evaluating the need for and implementing HOT lanes.
So who decides how much a commuter pays to drive in “the fast lane”? Value pricing — or setting the price of a service based on supply and demand, and how the consumer perceives its value — is used to set the tolls for HOT lanes. To maintain uncongested travel (important in providing HOV users an incentive to rideshare), the price for other vehicles in the lane varies based on the level of demand in the lane. Often tolls vary given the time of day, with commuters more willing to pay a higher toll at rush hour than, say, at 1:00 p.m.
As of 2009, approximately 150 HOV facilities existed in over 20 metropolitan areas in North America. Currently there are seven operational HOT facilities in the U.S., and FHWA is encouraging their broader implementation nationwide.
The FHWA toolkit includes a brochure, FAQ sheet, checklist of relevant issues to consider, case studies of successful HOT lane implementation projects and a video. These tools are aimed at decision-makers, such as elected officials or transportation policy board members, responsible for setting the transportation agenda in their communities, and practitioners, responsible for implementing those decisions. The toolkit helps users assess the appropriateness of HOT lanes for their communities and provides guidance for how to implement them.
Also in the toolkit is a set of screening criteria developed by FHWA for stakeholders to use in implementing HOT lanes. The criteria look at performance, facility and institutional considerations regarding conversion of HOV lanes for HOT use. Using these criteria, a community can assess whether or not a particular HOV facility would make a good candidate for conversion to a HOT lane.
“TTI has developed a set of tools that puts good information in the hands of those who need it,” explains Jessie Yung, program manager at FHWA. “The toolkit will help communities meet their local transportation needs.”