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HOV lanes

Here come the HOT lanes

Metro's HOV system

Those of you who commute from the ‘burbs into the central core will have new options for how to get there, if you don’t mind spending a few bucks.

Solo drivers willing to pay extra to breeze through heavy traffic could get their chance soon, with Metro expected to start opening its high-occupancy toll lanes early this year.

Metro officials had previously projected a January start to the high-occupancy toll lanes but now say they don’t have a specific date, agency spokesman Jerome Gray said Friday by email.

“We are undergoing final testing of the infrastructure,” Gray said. “In addition, we are completing the integration of the toll processing with HCTRA (Harris County Toll Road Authority). Once that is complete we should be ready to go.”

The Metro board approved this change in November. There have been HOT lanes on the Katy Freeway since 2009 – they call them managed lanes, but it’s the same thing with lower tolls. The thing I’ve always wondered about is how they know whom to toll, and whom to ticket if they’ve neither a tag or enough passengers.

Metro’s tolls will apply only to drivers with no passengers who opt to use the HOV lanes for a price. Single-occupant vehicles will enter the lane through a designated path that allows tolling.

Vehicles with at least two occupants will not be charged a toll.

Booth attendants will monitor the number of passengers in vehicles entering the HOT lanes, and Metro police will patrol the lanes.

Violators who evade the toll will be assessed a $75 fine, while “occupancy violators” (solo drivers who use the lanes when they are designated for HOV use only) will be issued a citation requiring a court appearance.

More on that is here. Maybe it works simpler than it sounds. Anyone have experience with the Katy lanes? Hair Balls has more.

Get them while they’re HOT

Metro is set to open its HOV lanes to single occupancy vehicles, but you’ll pay for the privilege if you choose it.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board Thursday set a range of tolls from $1 to $10, depending on the time of day, for its new high-occupancy toll lanes. The first such lanes are scheduled to open in January in the Gulf Freeway’s existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes between Dixie Farm Road and Dowling Street.

Metro officials said they hadn’t yet worked out a detailed schedule of tolls. They said it was unlikely that tolls would reach the maximum of $10 when the service begins, but the agency reserves the right to charge that much if necessary to manage traffic congestion.

Metro’s maximum tolls will be significantly higher than those charged by the Harris County Toll Road Authority on its Katy Freeway managed lanes, which also charge solo drivers for access. The Katy Freeway tolls range from 30 cents on weekends to $1.60 at certain peak hours.

Only vehicles without passengers will be charged – those that would have qualified for the HOV lanes as before will still get to use them for free. I hope this raises a bunch of money, and I hope that money is then used on transit.

Katy Freeway managed lanes set to open

Christof notices a banner ad on chron.com for the Katy Freeway managed lanes, which are set to open on Monday, April 18, and gives us an update on them.

The lanes will now be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Outside of rush hours, they’re a toll road: every car, regardless of how many people are in it, pays $1.10 to go the full length of the lanes. During rush hour, in the rush hour direction, single occupant cars pay between $2.00 and $4.00 and 2+ carpools are free. Those rates will need to be adjusted if the lanes are too popular, because HCTRA (who operates the lanes) has promised METRO (who gave up the HOV lane to make room for them) that buses will keep moving at full speed. Single occupant vehicles and carpools will be sorted out by a three-lane toll plaza: left lane for carpools, right two lanes for SOVs.

I guess they’ll have some sort of video surveillance to ensure that single occupancy vehicles are not trying to sneak through the non-toll lane. I predict that some time in the next year or so, we’ll see a story reported on how whatever system they have for monitoring this still has a few bugs in the system. The only question is whether they err on the side of caution or aggression.

Other potential problems:

Across the country, people have shown a distaste for tolls when a free option is available. Toll roads like Beltway 8 that don’t duplicate a freeway do well. Toll roads like the Hardy that do tend not to fill up. And Houston’s first managed lanes are in a corridor that just had a lot of free capacity added.

We may also begin to see problem with the lanes themselves. Nearly all the on- and off-ramps are from the regular lanes. If those lanes get congested, getting to the uncongested managed lanes will be hard for both carpools and buses. Some more direct ramps like those at Addicks and NWTC would have helped.

I think even if the free lanes don’t get too congested, having more vehicles cutting all the way across the highway to get on and off is going to increase the number of accidents. But maybe not so much if the free lanes stay relatively free-flowing. I wonder if anyone will do a study of this.

In other news, I recently realized that Bloglines has stopped noticing new updates from Intermodality’s RSS feed, so over these past few weeks as I’ve been wondering if Christof has been off the grid, it turned out that the problem was on my end. So, while I ponder the logistics of switching to Google reader – this is not the first time Bloglines has done this to me, and there are a couple of other feeds that are currently lost as well, I just noticed their loss sooner because they update more frequently – here are a couple of posts that I might have commented on:

Houston rail transit in an alternate universe. Maybe we are better off not having approved earlier rail referenda.

Why the feds like pavement and not rails. Don’t even get me started on this.

The transportation stimulus comes home. A look at where federal transportation stimulus money will be going around here. Some of it will even be spent on non-boondoggle toll roads.

The map – now with officially approved colors. An update to the Metro 2012 Solutions map, with station locations and other useful information.

Stimulus? What stimulus?

I’m basically agnostic about the plan to convert HOV lanes to HOV-plus-toll lanes that Metro is floating. Like Christof, who was quoted in the story, I don’t think it will make that much difference in terms of actual traffic flow, though I think that Texas Transportation Institute fellow is correct to note that it will help outside of the normal rush hour, when the roads are still pretty full. Mostly, I wanted to blog about this story because of this:

Metro President and CEO Frank J. Wilson estimated the cost at between $40 million and $50 million.

In its request for federal stimulus funds earlier this year, Metro estimated the project would cost $70 million.

Metro is slated to receive $92 million in stimulus funds.

Wilson said that he learned last week in discussions with Federal Transit Administration officials that the monies cannot be spent on the North and Southeast light rail lines, as Metro had planned, because those projects have not received the FTA’s final funding approval.

Boy, remember when Metro thought it might get as much as $180 million of stimulus money for light rail construction? Those were the days. Sure hope all the funding they thought they were getting pre-stimulus is in place, because if they were counting on any of this – or worse, if they’d already budgeted for it – that would suck.