Texas and California's experience with deploying High Occupancy Toll lanes.
This FHWA guide on HOT lane development was prepared in 2003 and is intended to be a comprehensive source of collected experience gained from the nation's current and implemented high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane projects. The guide presents a wide range of information on HOT lanes and can be used to assist transportation professionals contemplating specific projects. The relatively new concept of HOT lanes may be a promising option for transportation officials to manage highway congestion. HOT lanes are a highway demand management strategy that seeks to increase efficiency and throughput on existing highways by combining High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes and pricing strategies by allowing single occupancy vehicles to gain access to HOV lanes by paying a toll. The lanes are "managed" through pricing to maintain free flow conditions even during periods of peek demand. HOT lanes can thus increase the use of HOV lanes by allowing willing users to pay a premium in exchange for more reliable travel time and generate additional revenue. HOT lanes often utilize sophisticated electronic toll collection and traffic information systems. Information on price levels and travel conditions is normally communicated to motorists via variable message signs.
Outreach and consensus building activities are critical components of HOT lane implementation from the time preliminary investigations begin though the operational period. HOT lanes are a relatively new concept and require additional public education as compared to standard highway or HOV lane projects. Carefully planned and executed public outreach can play a critical role in helping the public to understand how a proposed HOT facility would work, to evaluate the advantages it might offer and to accept HOT facility as a new travel option.
Since the implementation of HOT lanes requires an initial outlay of public funds and creates an additional highway toll, ensuring public support for HOT projects is crucial. Although as motorists, the public regularly experiences highway congestion, as taxpayers they require assurance that HOT lanes will alleviate congestion in a cost-effective and equitable manner. Equity concerns are particularly salient for both political decision makers and the public art large because HOT lanes are often perceived as a premium service available only to those who are more likely to afford it. Thus, a crucial task for transportation officials is to stress that HOT lanes can alleviate congestion for all motorists by diverting traffic from non-HOT lanes.
Recent experience with HOT lanes demonstrates some specific actions that agencies can take to maximize public support for HOT lanes:
- Educate the public about the potential future benefits of HOT lanes. HOT lanes' market oriented approach to allocating roadway space may be a new concept to the public, and education is needed to distinguish HOT facility user fees from ordinary tolls. Agencies should stress that HOT tolls purchase premium traffic service, reliable trip times and time savings.
- Educate the public about electronic toll collection (ECT) and variable user fees. The public must also be educated about how HOT lanes operate and how user fees are paid. Privacy concerns regarding ECT must be addressed. The public should be made aware that fees will vary depending on time of day or traffic levels and will be displayed on variable message signs prior to HOT lane entry.
- Collect usage data to alleviate concerns about equity. The four existing projects in California and Texas show that individuals in all income groups utilize HOT lanes. Detailed statistical analysis of the SR 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, CA showed that although higher income travelers use HOT lanes more frequently, lower income travelers also utilize the lanes and approximately three quarters of users at a given time are lower and middle-income travelers. HOT lanes are chosen by travelers of all income groups based on the value of a given trip. In addition, HOT lanes divert traffic from non-toll lanes and alleviate congestion for all motorists. Surveys in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, Lee County, FL and Seattle, WA show that once people are informed about HOT lanes, the majority support HOT projects and show a willingness to pay to use HOT lanes.
- Identify stakeholders and communicate with them on a regular basis. Create regular communication channels with all potential communities, associations, agencies, media and groups that may have interest in the HOT project. Use a variety of channels to distribute communication including e-mail lists, newsletters, public meetings, project websites and telephone information services. Some agencies also use citizen's advisory committees.
For example, stakeholders included in the planning process for the SR 91 HOT lanes included the County Board of Supervisors, FHWA, Environmental Defense, the Reason Foundation, the Orange County and Riverside Country Transportation Commissions, Caltrans, state legislators, local mayors and council representatives, and the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. A project newsletter was produced throughout all the planning stages and kept the public informed.
- Communicate with elected officials early and often to ensure political support. Political support helps to build consensus for HOT lane projects and to address equity concerns. Conversely, the lack of political support can hamper the implementation of HOT projects. For example, in 2001, the Governor of Maryland spoke out against a proposed HOT project, which then failed to proceed beyond the initial study phase. In contrast, an elected official championed the I-15 San Diego HOT lanes though out the entire project. Elected officials should be consulted about the projects’ impact on public revenues and spending, financing scenarios, disposition of toll revenues, effect on constituents and competing transportation needs.
- Identify a vocal public figure(s) to champion the HOT project. Such a public figure can be an elected official, a community leader or private sector leader that effectively communicates a rational for supporting the project. Agencies should proactively seek project champions. For example, environmental groups may support HOT lane projects if they are shown to reduce vehicle emissions by alleviating congestion. Other potential supporters are rideshare agencies, transit agencies, taxi associations and employer groups. Some projects may require multiple champions to address different audiences or for different stages of the project.
- Maintain public outreach throughout all phases of the project. The California Private Transportation Company (CPTC), the private company that developed and operated the SR 91 HOT facility in Orange County, successfully maintained public communication through all phases of the project. Preliminary studies assessed traveler’s reaction to variable pricing in the early stages of planning. Initial public outreach was also combined with surveys that ascertained projected usage and willingness to pay for use of the lanes. Once the decision was made to launch the HOT project, project sponsors reached out to national media and public policy makers. A mix of media, including newsletters, radio, direct mail and signage along the SR 91 publicized the coming facility. Once the lanes opened, the facility operators have surveyed customers every year to determine customer satisfaction and to identify potential areas for improvement.
Houston Metro and TxDot, both sponsors of the Katy Freeway QuickRide HOT project, conducted a number of focus groups to assess initial public sentiment towards the proposed fee system. The project was initially advertised through Metro’s carpool matching services and then more broadly in print and media outlets. Applications for transponders were sent out to targeted zip codes. The Katy Freeway, I-15 and SR-91 projects each provided an information website. In addition, the two California projects allow online applications to be downloaded and submitted.
This experience suggests that well executed public outreach can increase the chance that an HOT lane project will succeed. An HOT project supported by the public and elected officials is more likely to be initiated, funded, and implemented as scheduled. A project with significant and continuous public outreach faces less risk of termination after funds have been spent on initial planning phases. Informing the public and involving all stakeholders in early stages of implementation will increase the chance that an HOT lane project succeeds and will lead to higher customer satisfaction. A publicly supported HOT lane is also more likely to be used by motorists, lead to higher customer satisfaction, alleviate more congestion and raise more revenue.