Express Toll Lanes Expanding Rapidly

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Despite populist opposition in Charlotte, NC and parts of Texas, 2017 has been a banner year for express toll lanes (ETLs). At least eight new facilities opened to traffic this year, another dozen are under construction (or about to be), and at least another dozen new projects have been announced in eight states.

The largest project financed in 2017 was the $3.5 billion I-66 project in northern Virginia, whose ground-breaking was held in November. And by far the largest announcement was Maryland’s $7.6 billion plan to add express toll lanes to its portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495) and I-270. Two other potential new ETL states are Oregon and South Carolina. In Portland, Oregon DOT is planning some kind of value pricing for congested I-5 and I-205—either ETLs or some form of all-lanes-priced. And in Charleston, SC, the state DOT is considering congestion-relief improvements to I-526, and ETLs appear to be a lot more feasible than HOV lanes.

Georgia DOT is back in the public-private partnership (P3) business, with that form of procurement planned for major projects to add ETLs to the Georgia 400 and the northern portion of the Perimeter (I-285) in Atlanta. The Maryland and Virginia projects noted above are also P3s, given their very large costs and the ability of toll financing to cover large portions of their costs.

As I’ve previously reported, Texas is now suffering from a moratorium on new highway P3 projects and restrictions on developing more ETLs. Yet as the nation’s fastest-growing state, it will need toll-financed P3s for such projects as a massive $7 billion reconstruction of I-45 in Houston and the $8.1 billion reconstruction of I-35 through downtown Austin, plus the $1.8 billion LBJ East project in Dallas. Fortunately, new congestion relief will be provided by previously approved projects including the recently opened $1.4 billion I-35E project in Dallas and the new MOPAC ETLs in Austin, plus the $1.1 billion P3 project that is constructing ETLs on SH 288 in Houston.

A growing number of ETL projects are under way in Florida, including the $2.6 billion I-4 reconstruction in Orlando, ETL additions to I-75 in Broward County and SR 826 in Miami-Dade County, extensions of the I-95 ETLs through Broward County and into Palm Beach County, Jacksonville’s first ETLs on I-295, and Tampa’s first project announced as ETLs on the replacement Howard Frankland Bridge. Under construction in California are new ETLs on I-15 in Riverside County and I-405 in Orange County. Georgia has ETLs under way on I-85 (extending existing ETLs) and I-75/I-575 in northwestern Atlanta. And the I-77 project’s construction continues north of Charlotte (despite continuing populist opposition), where officials have recently recommended a second ETL project on I-77 south of downtown.

If past experience is any guide, opposition to ETLs in metro areas where the first project is under way generally fades within the first year of that project opening, as people learn that (1) it is a new option, in addition to the choices they had before, (2) in certain circumstances, the value of paying the variable toll is far more than the cost of arriving late, and (3) that the lanes are not “Lexus Lanes” but are used by a broad cross-section of motorists.

Speaking of the value proposition, the I-495 express lanes in northern Virginia last month celebrated their fifth anniversary. Over those five years of operation, concessionaire Transurban estimates that its 3.5 million customers making 67 million trips have saved more than 5 million hours of travel time.

(This article first ran in the December 2017 issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)

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About Bob Poole

Bob Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the previous four presidential administrations on transportation and policy issues.

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