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More cities allowing solitary drivers to pay to drive on HOV lanes

Many high-occupancy vehicle lanes along major highways are underutilized, and cities and states are eying toll options for solitary drivers as a way to raise new revenues.

A couple of decades back, highway departments began incorporating HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes in freeways and expressways around major metro areas as a way to encourage more carpooling, and thus relieve congestion. Solitary drivers, under penalties of fines and citations, are not permitted in these lanes. In some locales, an ad-hoc practice called "slugging" has sprung up, where commuters gather at formal and informal pick-up points, hopping rides with drivers seeking access to the clearer, faster-moving lanes.

Now, many cities are looking at allowing solitary drivers to get on these lanes as well -- for a price, which could be anywhere between 75 cents and $10.  The Infrastructurist's Eric Jaffe took a look at the HOT (for high occupancy toll) lanes that have been established within some US major metro areas, to assess whether they're doing what they're supposed to be doing -- that is, relieving traffic congestion while making some additional revenue for highway departments.

HOT lanes are essentially separate HOV lanes that waive the restriction on solitary drivers if they ante up with a toll, usually via electronic payments.

Eric observes there are HOT lane initiatives now in many major metro areas, including San Francisco, Miami, San Diego, Denver, and Minneapolis, along with special lanes being developed around Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.

A recent survey by HNTB Corporation, an infrastructure development firm that specializes in HOT lane development, finds 33% of Americans support the idea that tolls should be the primary source of funding for major roads, and 52% support targeted toll projects.

Many HOT lane projects are public-private partnerships, according to Jack Finn, head of toll services for HNTB, quoted in Eric Jaffe's post. There's a severe lack of federal and state highway funding, and "places are looking for other ways of financing road construction. Now they can get a revenue stream to get a new lane and pay for the construction." Variable congestion pricing can be applied as well.

Why HOT lanes, versus the more established model of HOV lanes? Finn says that many HOV lanes are underutilized:

"One of the criticisms of [HOV lanes] is that they’re underutilized. The general-purpose lanes next to them can be bumper-to-bumper, while the HOV lanes are underutilized. With HOT lanes, they’re HOV lanes but you also charge a toll for single-occupant drivers to use them. So you can sell off that extra capacity to those single-occupancy drivers. You can price it just enough so that not everyone jumps in. If you have room for 1,000 vehicles an hour, you can price it so the lane still flows at 60 miles per hour."

Finn also attempts to address the mystery of why there aren't HOT lanes in evidence around my own backyard, the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia corridor. (Among many of the mysteries to the way these expressways are designed): "The northeast does have a fair amount of toll roads. Because most drivers already have E-Z Pass tag in their cars, so that would make it very easy. You’d have customers all over the place."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com