News Column

Would Tampa Motorists Pay to Drive Faster?

Nov. 5, 2012

Ted Jackovics

Critics call them "Lexus Lanes" -- corridors along freeways where motorists are willing to spring for tolls to travel faster than on adjacent, free lanes.

Traffic engineers call them "managed lanes." They see express corridors with tolls that can be adjusted up or down during the day, taking advantage of some drivers' willingness to pay extra to avoid congestion and speeding up traffic for all.

Like them or hate them, we're all likely to see more of them. Now used along Interstate 95 in the Miami area, with plans for Interstate 4 in Orange and Seminole counties, managed lanes are likely to become a common way of increasing traffic capacity as federal funding for major road projects dries up.

"There are many ways to fund highways," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said in an interview in Tampa last week. "Raising gas taxes might not be the best way."

Existing free lanes would be maintained. New lanes, though, would be restricted to motorists willing to pay perhaps 50 cents to $1 a mile to avoid gridlock. The goal is that those using managed lanes could travel at least at 50 mph during even the busiest travel times.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature laid the groundwork for a widespread focus on managed lanes in Florida's highway planning.

That followed near-unanimous agreement that managed lanes on I-95 between Miami and Broward County have worked well, both in keeping traffic moving and raising revenue.

Now, the Florida Department of Transportation is studying seven freeways in the Tampa region for possible managed lane use when those highways are widened or improved to handle more traffic. While studies are going on now, the earliest managed lanes wouldn't arrive before five to six years.

Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, said the reason for managed lanes is simple: The money for major road projects isn't there from gas taxes and Congress anymore.

"We have to do things differently," Clifford said. "We have to find ways to do things as efficiently and effectively as possible."

The pay lanes wouldn't necessarily be only for traditional motorists. TBARTA board members have said in recent meetings that a key benefit to managed lanes in the Tampa region would be to provide corridors for bus rapid transit routes.

Tampa is expected to create the region's first such bus route in the region early next year, although the downtown-northeast suburb route is not planned to use the interstate.

The FDOT studies in the Tampa region will examine prospects for managed lanes along the following corridors:

* Interstate corridors through Tampa, including I-275 from the Howard Frankland Bridge to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; Interstate 4 from I-275 to U.S. 41; and the Crosstown Connector.

* I-275 from MLK Boulevard to Bearss Avenue.

* I-75 from Moccasin Wallow Road to U.S. 301.

* I-4 from 50th Street to Polk Parkway.

* I-275 from U.S. 301 to Fletcher Avenue.

* I-275 from 54th Avenue South to North of Roosevelt Avenue in St. Petersburg.

* Lanes on a proposed new span for Howard Frankland Bridge.

In addition, bids on widening the Veterans Expressway next year from four to eight lanes will include managed lanes. Motorists would be charged a premium toll above the regular expressway tolls, both to provide revenue and provide lanes to reduce gridlock.

Prasad said while the state is taking a hard look at managed lanes in the Tampa area, the Department of Transportation will approve them only if the numbers bear out the initial optimism for the idea.

"We will be determining if managed lanes make sense in those areas," Prasad said. "We are not going to build something if we don't determine the demand is there."

Traffic patterns in areas with managed lanes like South Florida has shown that motorists are choosy about when and where to use the faster moving corridors. Many motorists use the free lanes when traffic is light, then managed lanes at peak times.

"Someone might want to pay a toll to get home more quickly from work on a Friday night or to get to a concert or a ball game," Prasad said. The two heaviest days for managed lanes in South Florida were for a U-2 concert and the opening of the Miami Marlins new ball park.

The Miami I-95 conversion to managed lanes was to narrow each of the five lanes of the interstate in both directions by a foot. The shoulder was then paved, creating two managed lanes near the median separated by plastic poles from four free lanes.

The narrower lanes sparked criticism by some motorists, but the increase in traffic flow during peak periods was substantial.

Southbound I-95 travel for a seven-mile segment in fiscal 2010 was 63.7 mph in the express lanes and 51 mph for non-toll lanes.

When managed lanes are added to interstates through Tampa, a motorist heading into downtown would have the choice of driving onto a managed lane to reach the airport more quickly or get to a business meeting on time during heavy traffic.

"It's all about giving motorists choices," Prasad said.

Source: (c)2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services