Trend: New Toll Systems on American Highways
New, sophisticated toll systems are being implemented in metropolitan areas across the country, according to a June 15 Associated Press story. The new systems, known variously as value pricing, managed lanes or HOT lanes, short for High Occupancy Tolls, are finished or close to completion in Southern California, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Denver.The concept uses free-market style tolls to make motorists see the cost of their driving decisions has long been viewed as a powerful tool in easing traffic jams.The latest national reports show congestion worsening on every front. The AP report says that back in 1982, when traffic jams already were seen as a widespread problem, the morning and evening commutes in American cities were severely congested 12 percent of the time, on average. That's more than tripled, with 40 percent of so-called "peak-period travel" severely or extremely jammed.The system on the 15 Freeway in Southern California works like this:In light traffic, the price on the express lanes is only 50 cents, the starting rate for solo drivers. The toll rises with the traffic and can be anywhere between $4 and $8.Traffic managers, relying on a network of cameras and sensors, monitor conditions and can change the toll as quickly as every six minutes. Electronic billboards flash the latest price before the entryway. Credit-card sized radio transponders on the windshield automatically bills drivers' credit cards.To push car pools, vehicles with at least one passenger ride free all the time. To support mass transit, commuter buses are guaranteed access to the lanes, and toll revenue helps support operations on the local bus rapid transit system.In the morning, the reversible express lanes only run south, toward San Diego; in the afternoons, they run north.Considered a success since the current version began operating in 1998, the eight-mile, two-lane project is being expanded to 20 miles and more lanes, with new, high-speed bus stations and access ramps so drivers can zoom straight onto express lanes without having to merge and cross the slower, free lanes.Opponents say these toll lanes favor the wealthy. San Diego's experience, however, has surprised some critics. Surveys show that users of the express lanes cross economic boundaries. Low-income people use it when they need to, as do middle-income and the wealthy. And most of San Diegans like them, according to the AP report.That evidence of acceptance, and the mass transit and carpooling incentives built into many of the programs across the country, has helped pull together a surprisingly diverse group of motorist groups, traffic designers, environmental organizations and politicians.