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in defense of smart lanes

By enelson
Tuesday, June 6th, 2006 at 10:23 pm in Freeways, Funding, Smart Lanes, tolls.

I never thought I’d see the day that an environmental group would advocate building more highway capacity to make life easier for rich people driving gas-guzzling SUVs and sports cars.

But it’s for a good cause. Environmental Defense announced today that it had “joined with highway and public transportation industry groups to encourage wider use of public-private partnerships to spur investment in transportation, reduce congestion, and protect the environment, noting that environmental performance and community benefit agreements could be helpful in expanding public support for mobility improvements.”

They’re talking about congestion pricing, which in California has been limited to “Lexus Lanes” upon which people willing to fork over as much as $8.50 for the privilege of passing the poor proles in their idling Scions. They do this in carpool lanes especially equipped with high-speed tolling equipment. It charges your FasTrak account. There are no booths.

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But hear what ED has to say about it:

Congestion pricing is a simple idea: vary the price of tolls to make driving more expensive at crowded times and cheaper off-peak. Just as cheaper “off-peak” airline fares encourage people to fly at less crowded times, so congestion pricing helps keep our roads clear and reduce the need to build new roads to handle peak demand. Smart use of tolls can also help finance a broad range of transportation choices, from new buses to subways and roads, at a time when public tax dollars are scarce.

It goes on to talk about New York’s low-price-spread congestion pricing on its Hudson River crossings started in 2001 that “has shaved 7 percent from peak traffic volumes.”

Then there’s London, which cordoned off its entire downtown and began charging electronic tolls of nearly $15 a day, and has seen a 30 percent reduction in congestion.

But here in California, we have Orange County’s State Route 91 Express Lanes, “the first fully automated, variable-priced toll road in the United States,” where commuters have “saved more than 32 million hours of commuting time.” And we have San Diego’s I-15, where FasTrak-equipped single-occupant motorists can use the carpool lanes for a “variable, per-trip fee based on the time of day and traffic levels.”

Imagine, if you will, the HOV-3 lanes on I-80 through Berkeley, cordoned off with Jaguars and Beemers zipping along past the steaming throngs of VWs and Hondas. Now, the casual commuters from Vallejo will still get a free ride, but their wealthier fellow travelers will be helping pay for a new Micro-BART line to Hercules.

Except you don’t have to imagine, because our local Congestion Management Agencies have already been bitten by the congestion pricing bug, and are planning to create new carpool/Lexus lanes on southbound I-680 for 14 miles between Pleasanton and Milpitas. The idea, according to backers of this “smart lane,” is to raise money for worthy transportation projects, although the annual take is only a few million per year.

In its press release, the Park Avenue-based nonprofit extols:

“It’s time for America’s transportation agencies to maximize highway system performance rather than just trying to build more roads. Better traffic management, market incentives like time-of-day tolls, and new performance-based contracting methods are key to getting the job done,” said Michael Replogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense. “Private firms can help governments accelerate innovation and ensure performance, but these deals need to be done in the open and include environmental performance and community benefit agreements if they are to sustain public support.”

Environmental Defense released a report today, No More Just Throwing Money Out the Window: Using Road Tolls to Cut Congestion, Protect the Environment, and Boost Access for All, which discusses how toll roads and public-private partnership contracts and legislation can promote environmental stewardship and equity.

You can read the report at

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4 Responses to “in defense of smart lanes”

  1. Joel B. Says:

    Toll lanes are worse than free lanes, but no lanes are worse than toll lanes. I don’t really like the idea of toll lanes, but they would be nice, for that day when I do want to get home early or whatever, one thing I think really ought to happen (but never will), is that 84 should be turned into a toll road and widened to 4 lanes (2 in each direction), that would probably get a huge amount of use, and would ease congestion on 580 quite substanially, perhaps the revenues could be used to increase ACE service.

    Environmental groups ought to support this, because cars sitting in traffic generate greater pollution than cars zipping by (mainly because a car zipping by will probably be on the road for less time than a car in traffic). Transit will not generally get people out of their cars, I take ACE as often as I can, but that still averages only 2 days a week (I have a job that often works past 5). And even, as I’m sure you’re aware Capital Corridor has some very odd (and long) run times. Until transit improves, people will drive. Might as well use those together, get people who drive to pay for improving transit. (I’d love to see more and later ACE service as well as replacing the 2nd track over the Altamont that SP took out long ago.)

  2. Leslie Stewart Says:

    You ought to read a bit more about the Orange County lanes. Information that was presented about a year ago by the Alameda County CMA when the concept for the I-680 lanes was being presented indicated that they weren’t just for the elite. Small businesses looking for on-time deliveries, moms late for picking up kids at daycare, and other “ordinary people” used them frequently although not constantly. Even a VW needs to get to the airport quickly sometimes!

    Also, I believe the Alameda County CMA had committed to doing a study on how cost could be defrayed for low-income drivers so that they would not be excluded. Might be worth checking on how that is going.

  3. Donald Sampson Says:

    My first thought is misuse of funds. The state will inevitably draw funds off of this revenue stream and direct them away from transportation.

    Secondly, before this nickname gets off the ground, let us not advocate import products; how about “Lincoln Lane” if we just must call it something other than Smart Lane?

  4. enelson Says:

    “Lexus Lanes” has always worked for me because it does a better job of deriding the idea. That’s not to say that the idea doesn’t have merit, but if you want to point up why some people don’t approve ot the idea, the name works. On the other hand, there are a lot of old, beat-up Lincolns driven by people who can’t afford to pay tolls to drive to work, so I don’t think that makes the point as well.
    Thanks for your comment,
    Capricious Commuter

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