Utilize standard highway project management procedures and tools to successfully implement HOT lane projects.

Texas and California's experience with deploying High Occupancy Toll lanes.

Date Posted

A Guide for HOT Lane Development

Summary Information

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.

Lessons Learned

Successful implementations of HOT lane projects require the application of standard and thorough highway project management procedures. HOT lane projects should be carefully evaluated and planned prior to implementation especially because HOT lanes are a relatively new concept. Projects should be designed to meet specific goals. All stakeholders should be identified and their buy-in maximized. There are a number of funding alternatives that can and should be considered. The following steps should be taken to increase the chances of a successful implementation:

  • Establish operational objectives for the project. HOT lanes should address a specific problem or lead to clearly identified improvements. Possible objectives can be to maximize overall time savings, to maximize vehicle or person throughput, to maximize travel time reliability, or to maximize profit. Projects that significantly improve time savings or vehicle throughput often maximize revenue by attracting motorists to the HOT lanes.
  • Confer with colleagues in other regions that have pursued HOT lane initiatives. For example, the Katy Freeway served as an example for the expansion of the QuickRide program to the Northwest Freeway of Houston.
  • Identify project sponsors and funding. Project sponsors can be state DOTs, local transportation authorities, public transit agencies, or private sector concession companies. The sponsoring entity is in charge of studying the feasibility of the project, performing environmental studies, implementing the project, overseeing the construction and possibly operating the HOT lanes.

    The majority of HOT lane projects involve conversion of HOV lanes into HOT lanes. 95% of HOV lanes miles are managed by state of DOTs, making them the logical project sponsors. Local transportation agencies or authorities are also possible project sponsors. They have commissioned several of the HOT studies in California. SANDAG was the project sponsor of San Diego’s I-15 FastTrak HOT lane project and was responsible for overseeing the implementation and operation of the facility.

    In a Major Investment Study (MIS), the Texas DOT proposed creating four additional managed toll lanes in the Katy corridor. The Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) offered to assume responsibility for managed lanes and to construct them as regular toll roads. Proposed HOT or other managed toll lanes early in the planning process can thus attract project sponsors.

    Transit agencies often have a stake in sponsoring projects because they operate bus rapid transit and may have excess capacity on their HOV facilities that can be sold to other motorists. In Houston, the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Houston Metro) partnered with the Texas DOT in the Katy Freeway reversible HOT lane project. The I-15 FastTrak HOT project in San Diego also partnered with transit agencies that shared both funding and revenues. Transit agencies must obtain FTA approval prior to funding such projects.

    Attracting private companies is easier for HOV to HOT lane conversion projects than for constructing new HOT lanes since the necessary funds for initial investment are much greater in the later case. Private companies bring additional sources of revenue, operating expertise and customer service experience. For example, private company involvement in the SR 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, CA enhanced marketing and customer outreach activities. However, the private sector involvement also limited the California DOT’s authority to make future improvement or add capacity in the SR 91 corridor. The non-compete clause led to a lawsuit and a bid by the Orange County Transportation Authority to transfer ownership of the facility away from the private operator.
  • Obtain legal authority to collect tolls. A state DOT may need to obtain legal authority to collect tolls. Alternatively, the HOT lane may be operated by an existing turnpike or toll road authority. Additional authority may be required to allow for variable pricing.
  • Identify and involve all stakeholders. Specify stakeholder roles and responsibilities to ensure interagency cooperation and coordination.
  • Identify a toll operator. The operator of the HOT lane can differ from the project sponsor. Often, a private company or a toll authority is chosen to operate HOT lanes for its existing toll collection and transaction processing capacity.
  • Identify and involve enforcement agencies early in the planning process. Police agencies with jurisdiction in the proposed HOT corridor should be consulted during the planning process.
  • Determine ITS technology requirements. HOT lane facilities require various ITS technologies and components that interact with each other in as a system. The requirements should be worked out early in the planning phase to assure that procured technologies will fulfill the objectives of the HOT facility.
  • Technologies are needed to collect and process tolls, count traffic, monitor and enforce payment, and inform passengers. The central component of an HOT ITS system is the lane controller. The lane controller assigns transactions to customers by communicating with the transponder reader and with the central computer. The central computer must contain enough memory to store all toll tables, staff IDs, and a list of valid Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) transponders.
  • Antennas or transponder readers can be installed on either on the side of lane dividers or on top of overhead gantries. All California HOT access and egress points use overhead gantries because although they require lane closures for maintenance, they are less prone to interference from transponders in nearby lanes than side-mounted readers.
  • HOT lane facilities also require Automatic Vehicle Classification (AVC) systems and Video Enforcement Systems (VES). AVC systems determine the vehicle type and match stored transponder information to the vehicle for enforcement purposes. AVCs are also used for recording traffic volumes by vehicle type. VES take photos of violators as determined by the lane controller.
  • Test HOT lanes during a pilot period using monthly permits. Prior to committing to expensive Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) technology and installation, HOT lanes should be tested. In both Houston and San Diego, HOT lane operations were first implemented with monthly permits on a test basis in order to determine whether they would achieve the desired effects on traffic operations and also to win public acceptance. Although less costly, monthly permits have a downside in that they involve selling a month of unlimited trips and cannot sell single trips in the same way that ETC can. It is thus not possible to observe traveler responses to changes in prices during different times of day or different congestion levels. The I-15 San Diego HOT lanes were tested through the issue of 500 monthly permits, priced at $50 each.

Well-planned and operated HOT lanes can create mobility and efficiency benefits for all travelers in a region. The sponsoring agency and other stakeholders should thus thoroughly evaluate HOT projects and compare them to alternative transportation projects. If a HOT project is deemed appropriate for an area, it should be well planned and designed from both the institutional and technical perspective to ensure that the project delivers benefits to motorists that exceeds the net costs to the entities that fund and sponsor the project. These experiences address the ITS goals of mobility, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.