HOV policy changes to benefit private tollway

Link to article here.

Change in public HOV policy smooths way for private toll roads
By Terri Hall
November 8, 2012

It’s been a long time coming, but don’t tell Dallas and Ft. Worth commuters that.

North Texas officials say the days of a free ride on HOV lanes were numbered from the beginning, but most area commuters don’t know that and haven’t a clue what’s coming outside the handful who happened to catch the poorly attended public meetings on the proposed increase in occupancy requirements for a free ride to go from two people (HOV+2) to three (HOV+3). Officials are also considering allowing single occupancy vehicles (SOV) to use HOV lanes -- if they pay a toll.

When HOV lanes were built in the 1990s, Christi Gotti, Senior Manager over transportation funding for the North Texas Council of Governments (NTCOG) and the Regional Transportation Council (RTC), contends it was always considered temporary with the intention of making them managed toll lanes later.

“These (HOV) are interim facilities. They’re not completed. We always said they’d become managed lanes,” notes Gotti. But that’s news to most drivers.

According to Gotti, the purpose of the HOV lanes is to increase the occupancy level in vehicles, reduce congestion, and improve air quality. So I asked how does allowing single occupancy vehicles to use those lanes gel with the goals for their HOV lanes? Isn’t that a policy contradiction? She said they’ve basically attracted all the HOV users they’re going to get in those lanes and have excess capacity.

Now the region is considering ‘selling’ the excess capacity in underutilized HOV lanes to single occupancy vehicles -- for a price. She noted it was in response to public complaints that those lanes are largely empty, “We get complaints that the HOV lanes are empty, so we’re trying to marry the both worlds.”

But, the message from the commuting public at the meetings wasn’t ‘charge me toll so I can access those lanes,’ it was allow everyone free and equal access to those lanes, period.

Dan Lamers, Senior Program Manager over the Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) for the NTCOG and RTC, said they can’t do that. Those lanes were built on shoulders and weren’t necessarily built to be a general purpose lane. But the biggest sticking point is the fact that federal law requires those lanes to maintain a speed of at least 45 MPH, which if they opened it up to all vehicles, the average speed would likely drop below 45 MPH in peak hours.

“We can’t manage the traffic/speed without the toll,” Lamers put it plainly.

That’s the rub for those who see the push for tolls as a larger threat to one’s right to travel. HOV lanes were bad enough, now there’s an all-out requirement for the government not only to ‘manage’ the travel of its citizens, but also to double tax them to access lanes their tax already money paid for -- all without their consent.

So what are ‘managed lanes’ anyway? Lamers defines them this way: “a facility that we’re able to manage flow of traffic through operational controls like occupancy and tolls.”

The public often gets frustrated with all these unfamiliar terms. At TxDOT hearings for proposed managed toll lanes, they don’t even say the word toll. Is that really being transparent about what’s happening?

Who’s calling the shots?
What’s also left out of the dialogue is the fact that these proposed changes come on the heels of the impending opening of the region’s first managed toll lanes next year -- lanes that will be for the first time, managed not only by a private company, but also a foreign company, Spain-based toll giant Cintra.

So there’s also the thorny issue of timing.

Cintra’s managed lanes will only allow cars with 3 or more people to use its toll lanes free. What precipitated the proposed changes to the region’s HOV policy to increase it to 3 people per car up from two? Cintra’s managed lanes will feed into current publicly-run HOV lanes. If the public HOV lane occupancy requirements conflict with Cintra’s privately-controlled managed toll lanes, it could cause confusion, says Gotti.

It looks an awful lot like the RTC is setting public policy to be consistent with a private company’s policies, but Gotti insists the RTC set the policy and Cintra is implementing it on their behalf. She emphasized the RTC set the policy before Cintra was awarded the public private partnership (or P3 called a Comprehensive Development Agreement or CDA in Texas) contracts for the North Tarrant Express and the LBJ.

They certainly knew a private company was going to do those managed toll lane projects, it was just a matter of which one. In fact, their managed lane policy was written with the private toll operator, and making big bucks, in mind (see here). It mentions the Comprehensive Development Agreement firm in the HOV section and states that trucks won’t be allowed to use the LBJ toll tunnel (the CDA or P3 contract under negotiation at the time this policy was adopted involved the LBJ toll lanes).

The toll rate ‘policy’ for managed lanes is 75 cents a mile and after the first 6 months, the toll operator can implement dynamic pricing and ‘market based’ tolls, which means charging whatever the ‘market’ will bear (translation -- an excuse to charge more than 75 cents a mile). There’s nothing ‘market’-based about toll roads. Roads are state-sanctioned monopolies by their very nature.

It’s also no secret that a private toll operator, or public one for that matter, can’t make enough money if they give too many cars a free ride. HOV+2 still pays 50% of the toll rate and the full rate in off-peak periods, and only HOV+3 gets a free ride. So increasing HOV occupancy requirements is due to profit motives, not the public interest. That makes the RTC’s motives appear to be the same. There’s ample evidence to demonstrate the public managed lane policy was written for the benefit of a private toll operator. So public road policy has been hijacked by for-profit corporations.

Why now? Because the RTC adopted managed lanes into its long-range 20-year plan, the MTP, in 2011, and now they’re addressing how to transition the HOV lanes over to managed lanes.

The RTC board will formally decide what to do at its December meeting. While staff is not recommending the board adopt new HOV occupancy rules right now, they leave that door open in the future.

The staff presentation words it this way: “Identify benchmark operating targets and speed thresholds, and review and adjust tolling schedule and auto occupancy requirements over time.”

Sounds like a fait accompli to me.

They’re moving the goalposts as far as they think the public will accept. So expect the slippery slope of government-managed travel to continue, unless there’s sweeping change to federal, state, and local policy very soon.

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