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Expert: HOT Lanes Are About A Reliable Ride, Not Easing Traffic

David Boraks

  Lake Norman area commuters are hoping that toll lanes will be the answer to traffic jams on I-77 north of Charlotte, helping to pay for widening the road earlier than planned. But an expert in so-called “managed lanes” told local officials Wednesday night toll lanes aren’t about that – they’re about guaranteeing a faster ride for those who choose to use the toll lanes.

“This is a game changing proposition for our highway capacity,” said David Ungemah, a toll-lanes expert with consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

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  Toll lanes do help relieve some congestion from the road, in general. But more importantly, commuters now have a way to know that they can get from home to work in a consistently reliable amount of time – as long as they’re willing to pay the potentially rising tolls at peak hours, he said.

Mr. Ungemah was the guest speaker Wednesday night at an “education and information” meeting the Lake Norman Transportation Commission hosted for elected and appointed officials from around the region. About two dozen citizens also attended the gathering at Cornelius Town Hall.

The meeting came as the commission takes a second look at a concept it endorsed in 2010, as way to speed up the widening of rush-hour-clogged I-77 in north Mecklenburg and south Iredell counties. Thanks in part to vocal opposition from a citizens group and some elected officials, area leaders have agreed to re-examine the issue.

Toll-lane opponents want the state to pay for more “general purpose” lanes, without tolls, to help ease congestion. They point to toll-less roads around other major cities in the state, including other parts of Charlotte, and wonder why the Lake Norman area is being asked to accept toll lanes.

But the issue may not be as simple as opponents perceive, nor may toll lanes be quite the answer that state officials are selling.

I-77 is congested at daily rush hours from Huntersville to Mooresville, a section where the road is currently just two lanes. The problem is that the state lacks the funding to widen the badly congested highway immediately. So state officials have proposed building High Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, to help pay for the widening of I-77 north of Charlotte. Tolls would be charged using electronic radio transmitters in commuters’ cars. Officials say tolls would help pay for the work much sooner than planned – perhaps 20 years sooner.

The project calls for two HOT lanes in each direction from the Brookshire Freeway/I-277 in Charlotte to Exit 28/Catawba Avenue in Cornelius. One HOT lane in each direction would be built from Exit 28 to Exit 36/NC 150 in Mooresville. Officials say two extra lanes aren’t possible on the northern section because of the narrow causeways over Lake Norman in Cornelius and Davidson.

The private partner would carry out construction and then operate the road, possibly for as long as 50 years. It would have the power to set and collect tolls.

Opponents, including a Cornelius-based citizens group called Widen I-77, say the HOT lanes project is too expensive, won’t relieve congestion, and would lock the state into a contract for too long.


Mr. Ungemah, who has worked on road pricing projects in North Carolina and elsewhere around the country, said toll lanes first and foremost are about guaranteeing reliable commute times – something not possible on busy conventional roads. “You’ll no longer have to add 20 minutes to guarantee you’ll get there,” he said. “It’s built in to the system reliability.”

When the N.C. Department of Transportation cuts a deal this summer to build toll lanes north of Charlotte, what exactly will it be getting – a wider road or a faster ride? Both, in a way.

The project will widen I-77 where it’s needed, in a stretch from Huntersville north where it’s currently just two lanes. But, extra lanes will be for high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes. That means vehicles will either have to pay a fee, or carry a higher number of passengers, to use the lanes. That will create a way for some commuters to get to work faster. I won’t necessarily speed traffic for those who choose not to pay or carpool.

Mr. Ungemah showed a photograph of separate toll lanes on a highway in California. On the outer lanes, traffic was packed and slow. On two left lanes separated by a barrier, traffic whizzed along.

He said the lane actually was helping – though it’s counter intuitive. While it appears few drivers are using the left lanes, it actually was carrying more traffic – 1,600 cars per hour at 60 mph vs. only 1,300 vehicles per hour in the saturated lane, at 25 mph.

Authorities – or a private company in the case of I-77 – manage traffic in the toll lanes by pricing, varying the price according to congestion in the rest of the lanes.

“Pricing is a more efficient means of metering,” Mr. Ungemah said. “The managed lane actually carries more vehicles per hour,” he said.

But that’s a bit counter-intuitive, too. The way pricing works, he said, is that prices rise as the toll-lane gets more congested, not as the highway as a whole gets busier. That’s because the goal is keep a guaranteed travel time in the toll lanes, he said.

Managed lanes in the short term won’t affect average vehicle speeds, Mr. Ungemah said. But over the medium and long-term, he said, they work better than general purpose lanes.

With general lanes, as traffic grows, congestion builds and eventually returns to all lanes, and any benefits from new capacity diminish, he said. Congestion won’t return to managed lanes, though. Instead, pricing helps ensure reliable travel times in travel lanes. And toll lanes ultimately will serve more vehicles at higher speeds, he said.

The formula could ease congestion, but it also won’t guarantee that everyone can get to and from Charlotte faster. Think of it as another way to get to work – a separate facility built to handle another group of commuters – those willing to carpool or pay.

Amid opposition to tolls, Cornelius commissioners voted last month vote to ask the Lake Norman Transportation Commission to study alternatives.

The towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Mooresville formed the commission a few years ago to lobby on their behalf on transportation issues. I-77 widening is not very high on the region’s construction priority list, and probably can’t be funded for 20 years, officials have said. So in 2010, the commission endorsed the idea of managed lanes as the best way to address congestion sooner.

By incorporating tolls and working with a private partner, the project was able to qualify for additional federal funds that require those tactics. That moved it up the state’s priority list for construction. The state has said it hopes to pick a private partner this summer.

State and local officials are referring to the arrangement as a public-private partnership, or P3. Mr. Ungemah said only two toll-lane projects nationwide so far have started as P3 projects, and one – State Road 91 in Orange County, Calif. – has since converted to public ownership. State officials “bought back” the project from its private operator because of a disadvantageous clause in the contract that prevented the state from improving any other transportation facilities nearby in the corridor.

In other words, anything that could reduced demand for the managed lanes was off limits.

That’s one of the issues opponents of I-77 HOT lanes have raised. But Mr. Ungemah said that sort of clause is no longer included in P3 contracts.


Plans for the P3 are also being re-examined. The transportation commission plans another meeting for public officials on March 13, at a time and place to be announced, to talk with an expert on P3.