Utah I-15 toll lanes chaotic start - gross underpricing, coms down

August 11, 2006
By Peter Samuel
Map: Deseret Morning News
Map: Deseret Morning News
The usual HOV lanes are underutilized providing opportunity for greater utilization and free flow with toll buy-in
The usual HOV lanes are underutilized providing opportunity for greater utilization and free flow with toll buy-in
Toll lanes on Utah's I-15 the main north-south drag through Salt Lake City have got off to a chaotic start with gross underpricing. At a mere $50 for a monthly pass 600 decals sold out in just over an hour Thursday. Sales on the project website began at Aug 10 08:00 with two-thirds sold in the first 10 minutes.

Passes were completely gone at 09:22.

Unknown thousands of frustrated buy-ins to the HOV lanes wasted their time trying to buy passes throughout the day.

UDOT and contractors grossly underestimated public interest in the project. Communications links failed. The project website - expresslanes.utah.gov - was overwhelmed. The website got patched up long enough to sell the available passes but has been down since. When we tried at 09:22 EST today (Friday) it was still down!

Good news is - the strong customer demand

Of course the good news is the strong underlying demand for an express ride, which helps justify the project, and suggests a potential revenue stream which will justify a serious toll system. Free flow has great value to motorists, obviously way more than $50/month.

Time savings in using the express lanes are put at 11 to 20mins per trip. At say 30 trips per month that's 5.5 to 10hrs time savings. The calculations produce a value of time saved of $5 to $9.10/hr. Obviously there are a lot more than 600 people in the southern part of Salt Lake City who value their time more than those numbers!

Pols set toll rates

Toll rates were set by a bunch of politicians and civil servants called the State Transportation Commission back on 21 Apr. There was a debate whether the monthly toll would be $50 or $75. They did recognize the $50 might be on the low side and gave the department - UDOT - discretionary authority to raise the monthly toll to as high as $100.

Though a clear example of the inability of government to run a business and set proper prices, the problems are eminently fixable. The frustration of those thousands denied passes yesterday by the misjudgment and poor planning can be relieved by higher prices and an accelerated transition to a serious flexible per trip toll system using transponders or license plate recognition.

There has been vague discussion of moving to proper per trip tolling with variable toll rates, but there is no timetable or plan for that - as yet.

BACKGROUND:

The toll Express Lanes go from 600 North (Street) just north of downtown Salt Lake City 65km (40mi) south past Sandy and Lehi to the University Parkway ramps in the Orem/Provo area. The lanes are the familiar underutilized carpool or HOV lanes built with taxpayer money during the extensive rebuild of the corridor in the late 1990s.

Already the project has improved operations by defining discrete entry and exit points with dashed lane stripes while making intermediate lane changes illegal with solid double stripe.

Toll buy-in is due to begin 1 Sept, but meanwhile signs are going up and state police are pulling over motorists who cross the double-solid lines - getting publicity for the new rules.

Startup costs for the project are $2.6m. The cumbersome sticker decal system involves monthly mailouts of differently colored stickers each month and requires motorists to crawl around the inside of their cars, scraping off the old and affixing the new stickers on rear and front windshields each month. Cops attempting enforcement have to try to eyeball the stickers as cars flash past, also trying to count occupants and set off in pursuit... wild west, cops and robbers stuff.

COMMENT:

We think this is cruelty to cops. Job impossible? Well maybe not impossible, but very difficult, hit and miss. There are stickers available for several bucks with an RFID circuit built in them that eliminates the need for that crude enforcement of trying to eyeball colored stickers, all those monthly mailings and in-car crawl-abouts with a razor, and does the job via RF antennae. Actually the RF sticker tag does a far better job than any colored decal. It allows each trip to be discretely priced so that far more than 600 motorists can be catered to. By varying the price per trip, entry to the express lanes can be metered real time, and free flow and maximum throughput maintained.

License plate recognition by cameras is perhaps an equally viable alternate technology now. People tap their license plate in when they make their toll payment on-line or by text messaging. London UK does its central area congestion pricing that way.

They have done such express lane tolling way down south on I-15 in San Diego Cal since the late 1990s with box transponders and variable message signs showing the going toll rates, and more recently on I-394 in Minneapolis with the 407ETR-type ASTMv6 transponders from Tadiran. (CORRECTED 2006-08-15). And of course 91 Express Lanes in Orange Co California were the original pioneers with differentiated hourly schedules - revised frequently - and full highway speed transponder tolls since the end of 1995. And in Texas they do it too. It's proven and works brilliantly. TOLLROADSnews 2006-08-11


Leave a comment:

 
 
 
Upcoming Events