Tolling and Transit: An Emerging Nexus

Senior Vice President, CDM Smith


Neither transit nor road tolling is new in America but both seem to be enjoying new levels of interest and support. With increasing evidence that traditional transportation funding sources are insufficient, many state and local agencies are looking at tolling as a possible solution. Recent changes in Federal law now permit tolling of any new capacity, even on interstate highways.

At the same time, growing desires for transportation choice and more sustainable development patterns coupled with concerns about climate change and increasing congestion in our nation’s cities have encouraged significant investment and growth in transit. These trends offer potential new synergies which can help provide integrated, multi-modal solutions to the urban mobility challenge.

To a limited extent, there has long been a linkage between tolling and transit operations, primarily through the use of toll revenue to invest in transit operating and capital costs. The most significant example of this can be found in New York City, where a large portion of revenue collected through tolling of 16 bridges and tunnels in the region is used to finance the public transit system, the largest transit system in the nation. Both the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Port Authority of NY&NJ dedicate a big part of net toll income to other modes.

While there are limited other examples of these cross subsidies, the practice is not without opponents who argue toll revenue collected from cars and trucks should not be used on other modes. It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that there is no single silver bullet that will solve our congestion problems in the future. In most cases we will need integrated, multi-modal solutions. The combination of road pricing with new transit options offers a unique opportunity to both fund the integrated “mobility” solutions and optimize the distribution of travel demand between the transit and highway networks.

There is perhaps no better example of this emerging nexus than the deployment of new networks of managed lanes in our larger cities, often together with new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the same lanes.

Managed Lanes

With the overwhelming success of the SR 91 Express Toll Lanes in Orange County, Calif., managed lanes have now been implemented in more than a dozen cities in America, with many more under development or study at the moment. Managed lanes, also referred to as HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes or simply Express Lanes, involve the establishment and preservation of a portion of capacity on congested freeways to be free flowing. In some cases the projects simply involve converting sometimes underutilized High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, to HOT lanes, whereby non-carpools can use the dedicated capacity for a variable toll while some or all of the carpools can still have toll free use.

In some cases new capacity is added; current federal law now allows new lanes added to existing freeways, including those on the interstate system, to be priced. In all cases tolls on managed lanes are collected electronically, with no tollbooths or other impediments to traffic flow. Toll traffic is usually required to enroll in a prepaid program, and tolls are collected at highway speeds via windshield transponders.

Toll rates are generally varied by time of day, or on a “dynamic” basis, to ensure the priced lanes remain free flowing. As traffic levels in the lanes rise, toll rates increase to discourage additional vehicles from entering. This management of traffic demand ensures the lanes remain congestion free even when speeds in the adjacent general-purpose lanes degrade.

Managed lanes have proven to be popular with the public and elected officials. Motorists enjoy the new travel options affording by the new capacity. Few drivers use the lanes every day; typically they use the lanes only when their personal situation dictates, or when congestion in the free lanes is particularly bad. In essence, the lanes represent an “escape valve” of sorts; an opportunity to get out of traffic when you really need to.

Bus Rapid Transit

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a public transportation operation utilizing buses in a limited stop operation that has many of the characteristics of an urban passenger rail service. Indeed, the name bus rapid transit is derived from rail transit and describes a high capacity system operating in a fixed guideway or other free-flowing route with limited stops and longer stop spacing than a traditional express bus.

After four decades of BRT development and the deployment of over 160 BRT operations worldwide, the characteristics of the systems vary widely but the basic elements include: stops limited to designated stations, specialized vehicles, operating in dedicated or designated rights-of-way, off-board fare collection, level boarding, intersection treatments such as signal priority or queue-jump lanes, intelligent vehicle systems and service specific branding and marketing elements. All BRT systems have some of these elements and many have most.

Elements such as level boarding, specialized vehicles with numerous, wide doors, real time bus arrival technology and off board fare collection facilitate fast boarding and alighting similar to that experienced in an urban passenger rail operation. Elements such as dedicated guideways or running ways, signal priority and other intelligent transportation system technologies, queue-jump lanes facilitate faster and more reliable running times. Most importantly, dedicated roadways or guideways allow BRT busses to get out of traffic congestion; enable the service to live up to the moniker of “rapid transit.”

BRT and Managed Lanes: Better Together

The biggest capital investment for successful BRT operations is typically the construction of a dedicated guideway or busway. But several recent projects have demonstrated that managed lanes can create a “virtual busway”; one that is often willingly paid for by car drivers trying to get out of the same congestion as the busses. The synergies are obvious and many of the successful managed lane projects in America have incorporated new or expanded BRT operations into their design.

Take the I-15 managed lanes project in San Diego. It began as an 8-mile reversible HOV lane, which was eventually opened to single occupant vehicles for a toll. To keep traffic moving, the project’s operator—the San Diego Association of Governments (SanDAG) —implemented the world’s first dynamic pricing system, in which toll rates changed as often as every six minutes based on volumes and speeds in the managed lanes. Net revenue from the initial toll lanes was used to fund new BRT service on the lanes, a good example of the synergy between tolling and transit, creating even more new travel options.

After the lanes were in operation for three years, surveys were conducted of I-15 motorists which showed overwhelming support for the new idea, including both those who used the lanes and those who did not. When asked how congestion should be solved on other parts of I-15, survey participants chose to extend the toll lanes, rather than add free lanes, by a two-to-one margin. The original lanes were expanded to two directions and extended to 20 miles, complete with four integrated park and ride BRT facilities with direct access to and from the tolled express lanes.

A similar success was experienced in Houston where the Texas Department of Transportation, the Harris County Toll Road Authority, and the transit operator (Metro) collaborated to develop four express toll lanes in the median of congestion I-10 which was being reconstructed. Again, BRT transit stations and park and ride lots were connected directly to the lanes, and busses now have a free-flowing virtual busway—largely paid for by (and shared with) drivers who themselves are buying their way out of congestion.

The I-95 Express lanes in Miami have also been a huge success. Funded through an Urban Partnership Agreement grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the project included the deployment of new, inter-county BRT service along the corridor, and through restriping and limited pavement work, has effectively added a lane in each direction. This has dramatically improved travel speeds on I-95 for both Express Lane users and those in the general purpose lanes as well.

Enhancing the Nexus

The next step to optimizing travel options is some form of integrated electronic pricing. The use of all-electronic tolling and highly variable pricing on managed lanes creates a great opportunity to implement integrated pricing strategies on both modes to optimize the distribution of traffic between roadway and transit. Transit fare collection techniques are becoming more automated and sophisticated, so it should be easy to develop to integrated pricing.

What probably stands in the way of integrated pricing, and indeed integrated mobility solutions as well, are the silos which have hamstrung transportation for decades. Traditionally we fund highways and transit from separate sources, and they tend to be planned and implemented by different agencies. The tolling / transit nexus shows real promise, but only if highway and transit officials can tear down the silos and get together on creating innovation intermodal mobility solutions. When they do, BRT and managed lanes will flourish, and other ideas for using road pricing and new transit alternatives can emerge.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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