Hotlanes and 394 MnPass

Presented by Gabriel Gubash, Chris Romansky, Feng Xie and Brendon Slotterback

Hotlanes at work
While an increasing number of state DOTs are studying the HOT lane concept as a strategy to improve urban highway service, there are only four HOT lane facilities currently operating in the United States.

State Route 91 (SR 91) Express Lanes - Orange County, California SR 91 Express Lanes are a 10-mile, four lane, HOT facility located in the median of an existing highway. Toll rates on the Express Lanes vary from $0.75 to $4.75 by time of day and day of the week. Customers must have a prepaid account and transponder to use the Express Lanes. Tolls for HOV2+ vehicles are reduced by 50 percent. The SR 91 Express Lane project was awarded on a concession basis to a private consortium, which financed, built, and operated the new lanes, using project revenues to repay its debt and derive profit. In April 2002 plans were put into place to sell the facility to the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA).

I-15 FasTrak - San Diego, California The I-15 FasTrak involved the conversion of an underutilized preexisting eight-mile 2-lane HOV facility to a peak-period reversible HOT. The I-15 FasTrak program allows single occupancy vehicles to pay a toll ranging from $0.50 to $4.00 to use the HOT lanes normally reserved for vehicles with two or more occupants. Customers must have a FasTrak account and transponder to use the HOT lanes. HOV2+ vehicles may use the facility at no cost. The project is sponsored by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the local metropolitan planning organization (MPO), which has earmarked a significant portion of the revenues derived from the HOT lane to fund transit improvements in the I-15 corridor.

Katy Freeway QuickRide - Harris County, Texas The Katy Freeway is an existing highway with a 13-mile, 6-lane freeway with a 1-lane reversible HOV lane in the median which initially operated at HOV 2. The facility was heavily utilized and eventually converted to HOV 3 operation in order to reduce congestion. However, this change resulted in excess capacity on the facility during the peak periods. As a result, the QuickRide program was introduced, allowing HOV 2 vehicles to pay $2.00 per trip to use the facility during peak periods, while HOV 3+ vehicles continued to use the facility at no cost. Customers must have a QuickRide account, transponder, and windshield tag to use the facility.

Northwest Freeway (U.S. 290) QuickRide - Harris County, Texas The Northwest Freeway connects the northwest suburbs of Houston with downtown, and has had a one-lane, barrier-separated, 15.5 mile, reversible HOV facility in its median since 1988. In November 2000 the Northwest Freeway HOV lane was converted to HOT use, and is operated in a manner similar to the Katy Freeway. The Northwest QuickRide allows paying two-plus carpools to use the lane only in the morning peak when three-plus occupancy requirements are in effect. From 6:45AM to 8:00AM, when the facility serves inbound traffic, three-plus occupant vehicle may use the lane for free, but two-plus vehicles must pay $2.00 to use the lane. HOV3+ vehicles may use the facility at no cost, while single-occupant vehicles are never allowed on the QuickRide lane.

MnPass Benefits

Recent decline in HOV mode share in 36 of the 40 largest metro areas is currently counteracted by allowing SOVs onto HOV facilities. These HOV facilities are not converted to general purpose lanes, but rather Hot Lanes allow SOVs onto exclusive right of way at a user fee. SOV tolling on I-394's reversible lanes allows increased utilization of existing infrastructure.

Existing technology is available to support expedited and cost effective tolling. An automated system will be implemented that does not require the user to stop, i.e. no toll booths. Hot lanes are another step towards maintaining existing infrastructure, the official position Mn/DOT has assumed with respect to accommodating demand, opposed to creating new infrastructure. It necessitates the improvement of existing infrastructure before creating altogether new infrastructure (i.e. acquiring new right of way) that only marginally improves total system conditions. Any new lanes will be constructed along current right of way only where HOV lanes or reversible lanes are not available.

At a net cost of $10 million dollars and 20% of which is to be absorbed by a private firm, Wilber Smith Associates, MnPass is truly a money saving (*noted difference in saving the tax payer, feeing the user) measure.

MnPass drawbacks

The 394 HOT-lanes have various problems to go along with the benefits. The major problem is that there may not be enough revenue from the tolls to fund the lane's construction, operation, and maintenance. In order to fully fund the lane, there would need to be a traffic level similar to that in Chicago. Initially, the lack of funding will have to be offset by government funding.

Another problem is that there will be an increase of cross-traffic. There will be an addition of at least six entrance points to the HOT-lane. This may cause delays on the HOT-lane because of the interaction of the free-moving traffic with the merging traffic. This will increase accidents as well as lower traffic flow rates. Because the HOT-lane is located at the center of the highway, there will be many drivers crossing over two lanes to get to the toll road. This will cause a lot of congestion and unsafe conditions on the free lanes.

By opening the HOV lanes to SOV vehicles may cause a decrease in the quality of carpooling and bussing. An increase in traffic in these lanes will increase the amount of time spent in traffic for vehicles formerly rewarded for decreasing traffic. This could have a negative effect on bus and carpool use. With a roadway system coming close to capacity in the Twin Cities metro area, drawing people away from mass transportation may not be such a good idea.

Additional Reading

MnDOT MnPass Technical Study

HOV Lane Conversion: MnPass Highway Community eXchange

US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration A Guide for Hot Lane Development (only read Chapters 1 & 8)

RPPI Reason Public Policy Institute Policy Study No. 257 Building a Case for Hot Lanes: A New Approach to Reducing Urban Highway Congestion

RealPlayer clip of Lt. Governor of Minnesota & Mn/DOT Commissioner Carol Molnau
(Scroll down and click on "Transportation Mania", Molnau interview is in first five minutes)

Star Tribune "Lost Time in Traffic"

Star Tribune "Plan could make driving a hard bargain"

Star Tribune "Tolls won't cover cost of lanes"