Toll Roads

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A transportation panel of the Maricopa Association of Government voted to move ahead with a study on how to make toll roads work in the Valley. Arizona Republic reporter Sean Holstege will talk about the issue.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. A transportation panel of the Maricopa Association of Governments approved a study yesterday that looks at how best to make toll roads work in the Phoenix area. Sean Holstege of the "The Arizona Republic" is following the story. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

Sean Holstege: Thanks for inviting me.

Ted Simons: Sounds like we're getting close to toll roads here?

Sean Holstege: It's being studied, we've gone further in the region than ever before. It took them two years to get to this point, and the basic question was, will it work. The answer was yes, let's move forward, and the panel voted to move into the next phase of the study.

Ted Simons: The preliminary study was a couple of years ago. What did that look at?

Sean Holstege: The results of that study will be out on Wednesday.

Ted Simons: Yeah, okay.

Sean Holstege: They concluded they are feasible and they pay for themselves, and they relieve congestion. They concluded basically they would work. The question now is what would they look like, how well would they work, where would you put them, what would that system entail.

Ted Simons: I want to get to more focused questions in just a second. Are we talking about solo commuters? And are we talking about carpool lanes?

Sean Holstege: They call them carpool lane conversions. They are called hot lanes in transportation jargon. What a lot of regions have done is take the carpool lanes and charge a toll if they wanted to drive solo in the carpool lanes. The theory being, you'd make up time. The traffic would move smoother if you work out some of those knots of traffic.

One of the complaints I'm hearing all the time is I'm driving in the regular lane, over to my left there's nobody in that lane. Why do we have these carpool lanes? One of the answers, let's get more cars in the lane to get more traffic moving through the whole system.

Ted Simons: Another system is, let's build more lanes?

Sean Holstege: That's the next phase. There's two ways to do this, one is a straight conversion. The other is the same thing, only adding a second carpool lane with a toll in basically the urban core.

Ted Simons: Yes.

Sean Holstege: One costs $300 million according to estimates, and the other is three billion.

Ted Simons: Yes.

Sean Holstege: Time savings, one versus the other, that's what they have to find out now. And is there any support.

Ted Simons: Are we talking all carpool lanes on all freeways, or just select lanes on select freeways?

Sean Holstege: That was the point of this first study. Do we want to target specific freeways or routes or segments, and the answer is no. We want a system wide carpool lane in the Valley.

Ted Simons: I-10,202 ,101 , the whole nine yards?

Sean Holstege: All of it.

Ted Simons: How much would commuters theoretically be charged?

Sean Holstege: They looked into Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah and Colorado, as sort of pure models to follow. In Utah you can go all the way from Ogden to Provo for no more than two bucks. They charge a variable toll based on how thick the traffic is and how far you're going to go. You'll see a sign that says your toll will be X for X number of miles. In Utah that tops out at $2.00, Colorado tops out at $5.00 California, Texas, other places are more expensive.

Ted Simons: How do they know the congestion?

Sean Holstege: They are monitoring traffic all day, they have monitors watching the traffic, computer modeling the congestion levels and the freeway speeds. They just dynamically calculate. They do that now.

Ted Simons: That's how they do it.

Ted Simons: So if I have my little -- I've paid my money and wind up not in the hot lane, do I get a refund or a rebate?

Sean Holstege: I don't know about that. It comes down to a choice. You look over and say, how much is my time worth to me? It's much more sophisticated than the standard sort of knee-jerk reaction and most people who oppose it. And it is opposed by most people. Why should I be tolled to drive on a freeway I just paid for? It's a common argument. The answer is it's because you're buying time. You can choose not to do it or choose to pay, depending on what you need to do.

Ted Simons: Would we see toll booths like the old days or little transponders, how that is going work?

Sean Holstege: To be determined, again. The phase of the study will wrap up in 2014 . The conventional wisdom is technology has driven a lot of this. Transponders, like the ones in California, are typically the favored system. It could be anything, we don't know yet.

Ted Simons: What about motorcycles and clean air vehicles, now you get to ride in the hot lane. And what about buses?

Sean Holstege: The carpool lane as a carpool lane stays there. All of the above. One of the other benefits they like to tout in selling the hot lane concept is it also frees up time and speed, improves the speed, travel and predictability for the buses. If you don't think the bus on the freeway is a good idea for you now, but you know that it will be, and you know that travel time will be predicted, that improves your transit system, as well.

Ted Simons: Takes the uncertainty out of it.

Sean Holstege: How much would enforcement cost? Right now I think we all see a lot of folks singing a happy tune by themselves in the carpool lane when they shouldn't be there.

Sean Holstege: Big question. The answer is we don't know yet. Part of the answer is it depends on how you frame the system. There could be a public toll road, ADOT could run that system, and contract that out to a private vendor. They could contract the entire thing out and have it as a privately managed lane. If it's contracted out -- and that's how most are done in other states -- those costs are borne by the private contractor. So when MAG does the study and says it'll net X million a year, it incorporates some assumptions about what that cost of enforcement will be.

Ted Simons: You mentioned the criticism, and the idea that we've already paid for these things, and also the idea that these are Lexus lanes. The people who can afford it will be there, and the average Joe and Jane will not be able to afford it. How far are those arguments going to go?

Sean Holstege: We did a very unscientific poll along along with my story. Something like 8% of people found any validity to the idea of converting to a carpool lane. Most thought it was waste of money or it wasn't going to benefit me. If you've driven in Mexico, there's the toll road freeway and the old highway. I've driven on both. That's where the Lexus lane argument comes from. They have done studies of who actually uses these things in California and some other states. People that want to get their kids from day-care and don't want to pay the penalty, it's to their advantage to pay the toll. It works out to be much more representative of society than we would expect.

Ted Simons: End of 2014, and then what?

Sean Holstege: MAG goes out to the public and refines their study, answers some of the questions you're posing. They narrow from the feasibility idea to a plan. By that time they will have specific highways they want to try out. They may do a pilot project and then they go into implementation if there's public support.

Ted Simons: Interesting stuff, good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

Sean Holstege: Thank you.

Sean Holstege:Arizona Republic

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