Tech Tools Used to Charge for Open Highway

By ROBERT TANNER,
AP National Writer
Sat Jun 11,10:15 PM ET

Interstate 15 running north from San Diego is more than a ribbon of asphalt carrying up to 295,000 vehicles a day. It's a glimpse at the future — a highway that combines traditionally free lanes with toll lanes to give drivers an option when the traffic gets bad. It is, at once, a solution for easing the worst traffic congestion, raising money for cash-starved roads and a big step toward bringing more timesaving, high-technology tools to daily driving.

The difference from old tolls? The new system combines the latest technologies with good, old capitalism — putting a price tag on a bit of uncongested roadway. San Diego's version nudges drivers to car pools and to mass transit, with part of its revenues going for high-speed buses that designers promise will outperform trains.

And while it started in Southern California, here and in Orange County, the concept is coming to traffic jams in metropolitan areas all across the country. Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Denver are only a few of the places where similar projects are finished or close to completion. The concept is known variously as value pricing, managed lanes or HOT lanes, short for High Occupancy Tolls.

"This is potentially as momentous as the decision to build the interstate highway system," says Michael Replogle, transportation director at Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Defense.

Replogle's excitement is shared by many experts on all sides of the traffic issue. The concept of using 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.

And while there was once resistance to foisting yet another expense onto taxpayers, that is changing as traffic steadily worsens and governments have been unable to come up with the money and political will to make commuting easier. Gas prices over $2 a gallon can only add pressure.

Every afternoon brings the same routine for Mario Aguinaga.

A rush out the office door to beat the flood of traffic. One ear tuned to the radio for tie-ups ahead. A nagging worry about accidents, as cars, trucks and motorcycles jockey at 75 mph one instant, brake to 15 mph the next.

This spring day is no different. Aguinaga is running a few minutes late and the highway is already thick with cars and trucks, a time-eating slowdown that is the bane of every grumbling American commuter.

Aguinaga, however, has a potential escape route: He can pay his way to an open road and a fast-moving trip home.

Some days the toll is $2, some as much as $8, depending on how heavy the traffic is. Paying electronically so he doesn't stop, he can zip onto express lanes reserved for car pools and bus transit. It's a two-lane highway-within-a-highway, running down the median of the interstate and it's often — though not always — clearer than the free route.

Sure enough, Aguinaga pulls onto the toll lanes and, after a few miles, the cars driving for free alongside him slow down to 20 mph, then 15. Separated from the pack by a low barrier, Aguinaga keeps humming along without touching his brake.

"If it's moving, it's heaven," he says. "I'm saving 15, 20 minutes."

Questions such as whether the new toll lanes will control congestion over the long haul and whether they will condemn poorer drivers to gridlock won't be answered for years.

But for those stuck in traffic, even temporary relief couldn't come too soon.

The latest national reports show congestion worsening on every front — longer rush hours, more cities stuck in gridlock, more cars on the road. 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.

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Even as a kid, Aguinaga was itching to drive.

He first got behind the wheel before he was legal, at age 12, and bought his first car two years later, a $25 junker that lasted all of three weeks. Still, it was a bargain for all it brought him — speed, fun, freedom.

Now Aguinaga's 51, and his love affair with the road is long over. Though he leaves early enough for his job as a county land-use technician to beat the morning traffic, he's not so lucky in the afternoon. And that's where the express lane sometimes saves him.

When cars move easily, the price on the express lanes is only 50 cents, the starting rate for solo drivers. The toll rises with the traffic, jumping quickly to $4, sometimes as high as $8, where it's capped.

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 Inland Breeze, the bus rapid transit system that carries 554 paying passengers a day — a sliver of the area's commuting load.

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.

Aguinaga was reluctant to pay at first, but now he's sold — even though the extension's construction can leave him stuck on the express lanes, particularly on getaway Fridays.

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Built primarily in the 1950s and funded by gas taxes, America's interstate highways were planned mainly as open, no-toll roads and are credited with helping drive the nation's economic growth.

For many, that freedom seemed like a right. Highways quickly merged with the very image of post-World War II America, translating the myths of the Western pioneers, cowboys and outlaws to truckers, bikers and free spirits on all-night drives. Think of the movies they inspired, from "Easy Rider" to "Convoy" to "Thelma and Louise."

But in 1991, Congress approved pilot projects that would test the free-market style tolls on interstates. Price controls also have been implemented overseas, in gridlocked London and Singapore. Their aim, however, is to keep traffic out of a crowded city, rather than road pricing's goal of moving traffic more swiftly.

Opposition, at times, has been fierce. The shorthand criticism is to dismiss the tolls lanes as "Lexus lanes" — ones where the wealthy drive without delay, while those with less sit in frustration and watch the minutes tick past.

"What this is is a way for people with resources to escape the consequences of bad transportation policy," says Chris Bedford, who opposed toll plans in the Washington, D.C., area when he was president of Maryland's Sierra Club chapter. "If a $15 HOT lane is all right, what about a $50 lane?"
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 wide majorities of San Diegans like them.

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.

"We think there's an historic opportunity to develop community and environmental benefit agreements as part of new toll roads," says Replogle, with Environmental Defense, one of the more prominent environmental groups to get on board.

This moment of unity may not last, however. The free-market style tolls bring together two starkly different views of the future of transportation. One would use the toll money to build more roads; the other would pay for trains and buses that give travelers other commuting options.

The San Diego model emphasizes transit and car pools, aiming to persuade people to leave their cars behind.

"If we can see our utopia, it would be that these lanes are filled by people that car pool and ride the bus," says Ray Traynor, a senior project manager at the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional decision-making group that designed and runs the I-15 FasTrak Express Lanes program.

Another vision emphasizes the cash that tolls bring and the roads they can build. A study by the libertarian Reason Foundation argues for a larger road network with higher prices and tolls on car-poolers with up to three passengers, with revenues to pay for bonds so roads could be built faster, on borrowed money.

The Bush administration supports more tolls, and giving state and local government leeway to craft public-private partnerships for new roads, says Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters.

"Today, people who are stuck in just choking congestion have no choice but to sit there and take it. People want choices," Peters says. "If we can bring market forces to bear — and market forces generally don't work without some form of pricing — then we can see long-term solutions to this."

Still, she and other advocates acknowledge congestion pricing isn't a "silver bullet" that will suddenly clear the highways of traffic jams. It's just a tool — a powerful one — to help manage the gridlock.

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Back on the road home, Aguinaga has no confidence that the toll lanes are going to revolutionize the San Diego highways — even when local governments finish extending them to 20 miles, or to a 100-mile network as planned.

Clear more space on the roads and more drivers will just fill it up, he says.

"Every generation wants to drive. I know I did," he says. "You're going to tell a 17-year-old, a 21-year-old, a 24-year-old not to drive?"

He wouldn't have listened at that age, though now he'd take high-speed buses in a heartbeat if they were convenient and fast.

He gets off the express lanes and back on the free lanes, now stop-and-go. The dreamcatcher that hangs from his rearview mirror, a finger-long American Indian charm of wood and leather, swings back and forth with each tap on the brake.

Aguinaga sighs, changes the radio station and waits.

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