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Life in the HOT Lane: Good Public Policy Means Better Travel

By: Nick Zaiac - @NickZaiac - Aug 27, 2014, 11:57 am

Last week, I found myself in Denver, Colorado with hopes of spending a weekend as far away from politics as possible. Yet, I found myself unable to avoid realizing some of the awesome things that happen when good public policy is allowed to work. No, I’m not talking about the state’s 2012 cannabis legalization, which has failed to bring the city to its knees. No, what struck me was something much more mundane.

En route to a day of hiking, a friend and I hopped on the highway for the quick trip from the central part of the city to its northern suburbs before continuing on to Boulder. It would have been simple enough, except for the fact that traffic was especially heavy on Interstate 25 on this Saturday morning. On any other highway, this would have meant an hour lost while stuck on a congested road. However, on this day, we happened to be approaching the entrance to the I-25 Express Lanes.

These express lanes, dubbed High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes have been expanding throughout the country. In 2000, only three of these facilities were operational, but now they range all the way from California to Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia. These projects combine the concepts of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes — which aim to minimize congestion by encouraging carpooling — and a toll road, allowing users to pay a fee for the convenience of less traffic and more predictable drive time.

Oftentimes, these HOT lanes use a system of tolls based on current traffic conditions, seeking to maintain a regular speed of travel, with tolls rising as congestion worsens. Drivers make the choice whether to use these facilities based on their need for a quicker trip versus the cost of the toll at the time.

“They’re really convenient. I just wish there were more of them; that would make it way better,” said Sarah Freedman, a local Denver resident who uses these lanes regularly. Sarah’s experience appears to be the norm, with several others agreeing that the choice is a valuable option.

Moreover, as Robert Poole and Kenneth Orski note, HOT lanes serve as a valuable method of unlocking value in currently existing HOV facilities. Conversion of such facilities is relatively cheap, and it lowers the amount of infrastructure that is being used under capacity. While attempting to accomplish many goals with one project is often a horrible idea, HOT lane projects tend to work in favor of infrastructure user fees, which is generally a great thing.

Because of the fees generated, new HOT lane projects are great candidates for private involvement in infrastructure finance. Even the US Federal Highway Administration says so. These projects are a great way to create value and options for infrastructure users with minimal taxpayer cost and risk. It is rare to say a government program is valuable, but introducing more HOT lanes to the national highway network would certainly be valuable to taxpayers and commuters alike.

Nick Zaiac Nick Zaiac

Nick Zaiac is a public-policy researcher in Washington, DC. He also serves as a policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His column, The DC Leviathan focuses on the often-ignored bureaucratic agencies, from the Department of the Interior to the General Services Administration. He has been published in the Baltimore Sun, City AM, CapX, and other outlets. Follow @NickZaiac.