August 13, 2007
  

"Shadow Tolling" Eyed For I-595 Express Lanes In Broward County

Ken Orski

Add the concept of "shadow tolling" to the roster of innovative road financing methods. Introduced in the United Kingdom some ten years ago, the concept of shadow tolling has crossed the Atlantic and is being considered by the Florida Department of Transportation in its I-595 corridor project. The state is inviting the private sector to help finance, build and operate a 10.5-mile stretch of elevated toll lanes intended to relieve congestion in the busy I-595 corridor that connects I-75 with the Florida Turnpike and I-95 in Broward County. I-595 currently carries about 180,000 vehicles/day in the busiest stretch of the corridor, and the volume is expected to rise to 300,000 by 2035.

The state is ready to commit $900 million to the project and is asking the private sector to finance the remaining $300 million of the $1.2 billion project as well as to build, operate and maintain the facility. But instead of letting out a toll concession wherein the private concessionaire would collect and pocket the toll revenue, the state proposes to collect the tolls and pay the private builder-operator a fee based on the number of vehicles using the toll facility. More here from Miami Herald reporter Larry Lebowitz.

The $1.2 billion project would expand and improve the existing east-west corridor that currently supports close to 200,000 vehicles a day, and add three elevated, reversible, variably priced toll lanes (on I-595) from Interstate 75 and the Sawgrass Expressway in the west to U.S. 441 and Florida's Turnpike in the east.

From the average commuter's perspective, the highest profile change would be the addition of the 10-mile tier of variably priced toll lanes -- charging real tolls, not spectral ones. The express lanes, which would be open eastbound in the mornings and westbound at night, are designed to enhance ''through'' traffic only. This means all traffic entering or exiting between the end points will have to use the at-grade ''free'' lanes. Toll prices would be posted on electronic message signs as drivers approach the elevated lanes and change every few minutes depending on how many cars are using the special lanes.

The idea is pure supply-and-demand economics: promise motorists a theoretical 55 mph trip on the elevated pay lanes regardless of how congested the ''free'' lanes are moving below. The more congested the roadway, the higher the toll....this method has been used to finance major infrastructure projects in the United Kingdom, Spain and Australia, but never in North America.

From the perspective of the state, shadow tolling has several advantages over a private concession.

  • First, it allows the state to retain possession and maintain control over collection of toll revenue, even as the facility is being managed by a private operator-- a politically more attractive option.
  • Second, by tying these "availability payments" to the volume of traffic, the state creates a profit incentive for the private operator to manage the facility efficiently and maximize vehicle throughput.
  • And third, the state owes money to its private sector partner only to the extent the facility generates revenue. If traffic is lower than forecast, the private partner bears the risk.
  • In another Miami Herald story earlier this summer on the I-595 elevated express lane plans, financing options took a back seat to the access and aesthetic concerns of some local residents.

    The state and a federal agency have approved the elevated express lanes after a public hearing in 2005. Since then, the municipalities of Plantation and Davie have come out against the elevated lanes. FDOT is trying to figure out how to pay for them.

    "When 595 opened, in a very short period of time it was already over capacity," said Alicia Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation. "We understand the residents may not see the value of improving this corridor with elevated lanes, but what good is looking out of their back door and seeing a parking lot called Interstate 595? We need to come up with an alternative for the next 30 to 50 years," Gonzalez said.

    Also, Gonzalez said, while Plantation wouldn't have an on-ramp for the express lanes, every car that gets on the special lanes in Weston is a car that Plantation residents wouldn't have to compete with on the main highway. As for appearances, double-deck expressways are widely thought of as eyesores. But FDOT is hoping to build a newer style of elevated lanes, built on a single row of pillars running down the center of the median. A similar design in Tampa drew little opposition once people saw the pictures, officials there said.

    A decision on whether to green light the "shadow-tolling" finance plan for the elevated express lanes on I-595 is due in early September. If the financing approach is approved, a contractor would be selected by late 2008, construction started in 2009, and completed in 2014.

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    This entry is a year old, almost. What did Florida decide to do?

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