October 1, 2008
  

HOT Lanes Advance In Houston On I-10 "Katy Freeway"

Matt Rosenberg

Working with federal, state and regional partners, the Harris County Tollway Authority this fall will begin the final stages of implementing a plan for a total of four fully-operational High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes, on both sides of a 12-mile stretch of the I-10 Katy Expressway. The highway section runs between central Houston and points west. The current, single, reversible carpool and transit, or HOV lane will make way for two managed HOT lanes in each direction. As is the case in all new tolling projects now, tolls will be assessed automatically, as traffic flows, without old-school tollbooths. Overhead gantries will electronically read transponders in vehicle windshields which are registered to drivers' accounts.

The $2.8 billion project includes additional general use, or free, lanes, and was expected to take 10 years to finish after construction started in 2003. But it's now nearing completion after just five years thanks to a $500 million stake contributed by the county tollway authority, based on anticipated HOT lane revenues.

Until next spring, the new HOT lanes will be open only to transit, motorcycles and "HOV2+" vehicles; then Harris County commissioners will likely set "dynamic tolling" rates allowing single-occupant vehicles to use the managed lanes during off-peak, and probably peak hours as well. Tolls for those drivers will vary according to lane usage levels and congestion; transit, motorcycles and high occupancy vehicles will continue to use the lanes for free.

The goal will be to set prices for the solo drivers at a rate that keeps HOT lane traffic flowing no slower than 45 mph. I-10 runs 2,460 miles from Jacksonville, Fla. to Santa Monica, Calif., passing through New Orleans, Houston (pictured above, left), San Antonio and Phoenix along the way. The I-10 Katy Expressway HOT lane project in Houston is part of a larger regional mobility plan which includes more HOT lanes, and, it is hoped, a dramatic expansion of transit options including light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, multi-modal transit centers and park-and-ride facilities. Some funding challenges have been evident in the transit plan, though.

In this slideshow, the Houston regional transit agency Metro details the supplemental HOT lane plan it is shopping to the community now. The proposal is to convert the single HOV lane in each of five highway corridors to a single HOT lane with minimum speeds of 50 mph. The corridors are IH 45, north and southbound, U.S. 59 north and southbound, and Interstate 290 - which currently has a reversible HOV lane.

With strikingly affordable housing, a vibrant economy driven by the energy and medical industries, plus a major port, Houston is poised for continued growth, even in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Another one million residents are expected by 2015 and another 3 million by 2035. The current Houston region population is 5.5 million.

To the east, the Atlanta region's leaders want to convert 44 miles of existing carpool, or HOV lanes on Interstate highways to HOT lanes. More here from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and in this presentation to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Variably-priced HOT lanes - free to carpoolers and transit and open for a cost to solo drivers - are already spreading in the West Coast Corridor, from San Diego and Orange County, Calif. to metro Los Angeles. Managed lanes with variable fees for solo drivers already have a foothold here in metro Puget Sound and are increasingly likely to play a role in the big Columbia River Crossing project linking Portland, Ore. with Washington state.

Near the "other Washington," a major HOT lanes project is under development on the I-495 Capital Beltway in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. But continuity hasn't been secured as the road crosses into Montgomery County, Maryland. Some leaders - such as San Diego's - get something important about "managed lanes." For real benefits to accrue, the approach has to be extended to a region's highways system-wide.

RELATED:

"Some Tips To Manage The Managed Lanes," Houston Chronicle, 8/17/08. (Incl. transition planning, timeline).

Additional information on congestion pricing around the U.S. is in this topical archive from our blog. (Once in, please continue scrolling down).

Cascadia Center's June 26, 2008 "West Coast Tolling And Traffic Management Workshop - Regional Perspectives," as broadcast on TVW, Washington state's public affairs channel. (Features speakers from San Diego, S.F. Bay Area, Portland, Puget Sound).

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