HOT Lanes; Fair if Feasible

HOTLast Wednesday (12-5-2012), I picked up a USA Today and read about how highways in places like the I-495 Capital Beltway are converting HOV Lanes (Heavy Occupied Vehicle—usually requiring at least three occupants (sometimes two) in the vehicle), into HOT Lanes (Heavy Occupied Toll—same concept only single occupied vehicles may use the lane if they are willing to pay a toll.

About two years ago, I attended a hearing in the amphitheater at Norwalk Community College on a proposal to help curb the largest per capita deficit of the fifty states by resurrecting toll collection using the all-electronic method.  Personally, I would prefer not to see it happen and would like to stand steadfast against it—but when it comes to this issue, I do keep a white surrender flag in my back pocket because with the heavy burden on taxpayers in Connecticut at this time, toll collection does have one thing going for it; out of stators help us out financially.  To simply raise DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) fees such as emissions testing and registration renewal, the burden is 100% on Connecticut motorists.  The problem has been with the unusual constraints on Connecticut limited access highways versus a majority of other states, finding a feasible way to implement it is the problem.

The most popular suggesting has been what are called Gateway Tolls.  This would place electronic toll collection devices at state lines such as I-95 in Greenwich, the Merritt Parkway in Greenwich, I-84 in Danbury, I-91 in Enfield, I-84 in Union, I-95 in Pawcatuck, I-395 in Thompson, and the US 6 [turnpike] extension in Killingly.  Between $3 and $5 for passenger vehicles.  Since the Massachusetts and Rhode Island borders are mainly roadways that conform to the norm for placement of interchanges on Interstate highways, it could work there.  However, it is problematic on the New York borders, especially in Greenwich.  Had I-95 (formerly Connecticut Turnpike) been built according to the protocol of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system, a town the size of Greenwich would only have one interchange.  On I-95, there are four.  One of the original Connecticut Turnpike toll plazas was right between the first two exits headed toward New Haven or the last two heading toward New York.  Many local residents who knew their local streets would exit the highway at exit 2 (there is no exit 1) and either get to their homes the back way or follow small round trail-blazer logo turnpike signs to take them to the next interchange to get back on.  Limited to local Greenwich-ites, is worked out as truckers and out of stators traveling the highway for the first time paid the toll, then 25¢ for a passenger car.  But in the era of GPS, smart phones, Google Maps and the like, even first time out of state drivers can find out how to avoid paying the toll, cluttering up traffic on the US-1 Bridge in the Byram section of Greenwich and the Mill Street Bridge; and resulting in a shortfall of revenues from these ETS devices.

The HOT concept, I find a good idea if we the people against toll collection have to surrender.  Basically, a single occupied vehicle (or vehicle short of the minimum number of occupants, two or three) have a choice to ride the main lanes, which may be a more congested, slower ride for free or pay money for a faster ride through the traffic.  At the entrance to the HOT (formerly HOV), there are initially two lanes.  One lane for buses and cars with the minimum number of passengers and one lane marked TOLL ONLY.  Toll rates vary depending on volume of traffic.  If the traffic is moving at the speed limit, the minimum toll is charged.  If reduced to 45 mph, the maximum toll is charged with in-between variations; an electronic sign at the entrance displays the current rate.  On the 495 beltway in D.C., the range is 25¢ to $1.40 per mile.  If the average speed in the HOT lane goes below 45 mph, the lane is closed to single occupied vehicles, a gate drops down closing the toll only lane, and it operates as a garden-variety HOV until average speeds pick up to at least 45 mph.  Controversial, but fair.

Connecticut does have the appropriate type of lanes on I-91 north of Hartford and I-84 east of Hartford.  Such a system is workable in these locations.  The only problem is the volume of traffic upstate is not anywhere near as heavy as it is in Fairfield County (southwest part of the state).  A toll collection plan that excludes Fairfield County and the New York borders may not yield a significant amount of revenue.  Any type of electronic only toll collection system will be an initial expense to the state, now very deep in debt, and before the toll money can be used in some manner that would curb the deficit, the equipment has to be paid for first.

I got to thinking and I got the idea for possible HOT only highways, or reasonable hybrids.  The HOT lanes on the Capitol Beltway are still free for carpoolers, vanpoolers, and buses.  But it is also possible to charge the afore mentioned, just less than single occupied vehicles.  Connecticut has been sitting on the Super-7 project (a US-7 expressway from I-95 in Norwalk to I-84 in Danbury) since the Connecticut Turnpike opened for business in 1958.  Currently, you can ride it from Exit 15 off I-95 to the intersection of Grist Mill Road and the existing (non-limited access) US 7.  Either law suits or inadequate funding have stymied the completion of this roadway.  In addition, since 1991 when they built the extension from New Canaan Avenue to Grist Mill Road, many small businesses along old route 7 (Main Avenue) have complained how it took business away as more motorists continue to the new endpoint.  The proposed expressway is always going to parallel old route 7 so here is a novel idea: take a stimulus and continue Super-7 to I-84 in Danbury.  From the Grist Mill Road interchange to some point in Danbury, the expressway would be an all HOT highway.  This means you can ride old route 7 for free or pay a toll to ride the new expressway.  The variation would be the expressway would never shut down to single occupied vehicles, just a higher toll would be implemented.  EZ Pass or Metro Tag would be required to use the expressway.  Truckers rates per axle would also be established.  Toll money would ultimately pay for the highway.  It is about a twenty mile stretch from Norwalk to Danbury so the expense of the equipment would be reasonable.

Down the road, the possibility of operating the Merritt Parkway as a hybrid HOT could help ease passenger car traffic on I-95 could generate revenue for the maintenance of this historic and scenic highway which gets little aid from the feds since it prohibits truck traffic.  I-95 between Greenwich and New Haven is just not feasible for such implementation; it would take major construction to put in such a lane, there is very little land available to do this, and with exits so close together, it would cause accidents as motorists would be playing frogger to get out of this [left] lane to get to their exit.  But with a little creativity, if Connecticut has no choice but to find a method to collect tolls to raise revenue, the HOT concept is the best of the options.



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