Metro Turns Up The Heat

Metro is transforming five high occupancy vehicle lanes into high occupancy toll lanes. That means people driving solo can hop on the lanes at certain times for a fee. But even if hot lanes alleviate some of the traffic, don't expect them to be a silver bullet for Houston's congestion problems. From the KUHF NewsLab, Wendy Siegle reports.
Around 15 million trips are made by car in the Houston region every day. And let’s be honest, sometimes it feels like all 15 million are being taken on the same freeway as you. But come 2012, there may be a faster way to get you to your destination, if you can cough up the cash.

In its latest budget, Metro put aside $20 million in federal funds to turn 84 miles of HOV lanes into High Occupancy Toll or HOT lanes. That means cars with just one person in them will be able to pay a fee using something like an EZ Tag to access the HOV lane and skip the stop and go traffic. Metro president and CEO George Greanias says the existing HOV lanes are practically empty around 80 percent of the time.

“With the exception of just some peak periods, there’s usually additional capacity there that’s not getting used. Meantime, you’ve got the lanes adjacent to the HOV lanes that are congested because of all the heavy traffic.”

Carpools, vanpools, and buses will be able to continue using the lane for free. The toll price for single occupancy vehicles will vary depending on demand, and if the average speed on the HOT lane falls below 50 miles per hour, Metro may close it off completely to non-HOVs because slow moving traffic would defeat the purpose.

(sound of freeway)

But critics say HOT lanes only provide relief for solo motorists with cash to spare. They say drivers on a tight budget will be left stranded in traffic simply because they can’t afford the toll. But Greanias says with another lane available, it’s actually a win-win.

“Even somebody who doesn’t use the lane will benefit if we get some cars off some of the regular lanes, and get those people out of the way then the people who don’t want to pay the toll or don’t feel they should or can, they’ll have a little more room a little less congestion.”

Alan Clark is the director of transportation and air quality programs for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. He says freeing up highways by offering alternatives like HOT lanes has the added benefit of cleaning up the air. That’s because cars sitting idle in traffic release pounds of extra air pollutants.

“If you’re traveling five, ten miles an hour a lot of that burnt fuel is just wasted. As a consequence, sitting stuck in traffic is certainly bad for our environment.”

Of course we are just talking about a single lane on each freeway, so the impact on congestion and the environment may only be slight. Still, Clark says it is a step in the right direction.

“It takes a lot of these kinds of steps to make a big difference. We want to take advantage of all of them.”

Money generated from the HOT lanes will be spent on the upkeep of the tolling facilities, which will be automated. Metro says its current projections show no net revenue from the lanes. But if there is anything left over, Metro will be splitting it with TxDOT. The first HOT lane, along I-45 south is scheduled to open in January 2012.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I’m Wendy Siegle.