Toll Caps Undermine Congestion Pricing Washington state advised to lift the $10 toll cap as congestion returns 


Signs showing the rates for the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on Interstate 405 in Bothell, Wash., in 2016. Some experts say these tolls would rise exorbitantly without a cap. PHOTO: ELAINE THOMPSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS By Scott Calvert May 4, 2018 WSJ States are increasingly turning to a free-market solution for highway congestion, putting in demand-based tolls that rise in price as traffic builds. The goal is to keep more cost-conscious drivers in the free but slower lanes, and the priced express lanes humming for those willing to pay for speed. There is one hitch. Some places like Los Angeles and Miami have put caps on tolls to spare drivers potential sticker shock. Such price limits make jams more likely in express lanes, eroding their efficacy and prompting driver complaints. Without a cap, tolls on a 9-mile stretch in Virginia have almost hit $50. “There is congestion occurring almost on a recurring basis for those [capped] facilities,” said Nick Wood, an assistant research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. In Washington state, outside experts recommend raising or eliminating the $10 cap on the 15-mile Interstate 405 express lanes east of Seattle. In Utah, the state transportation commission last year gave officials authority to quadruple the top express-lane toll on I-15, though only a doubling is planned. And in Southern California, the top

toll on the I-10 and I-110 express lanes has risen six times since 2016, most recently in March, and now stands at $2 per mile. “Someone paying a premium should get a safe, congestion-free ride on nice, new, smooth pavement,” said Greg Cohen, president and chief executive of the American Highway Users Alliance, which represents drivers. “You’re expecting a level of service that’s better than a tax-based road.” Mr. Cohen said the answer may be to add a lane— an expensive approach—instead of allowing higher tolls if most drivers won’t be able to afford them. “You’re just going to make people really angry,” he said. Political considerations are a factor in setting tolls, said Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission. She said I-405 tolls would rise “exorbitantly” without a cap, fueling perceptions that they are “Lexus lanes” intended for wealthy motorists. “From a public acceptance standpoint that just wouldn’t be acceptable. We already have a lot of pushback from it hitting $10,” Ms. Griffith said. The express lane with demand-based tolls on I-394 in Minneapolis opened in 2005, and was among the first. Mr. Wood said there are now more than 30 such roadways in the U.S., most with a cap, and 13 others where tolls vary by time of day. Most express lanes are former high- occupancy lanes and usually can be used by carpoolers free or at a discount, he said. About six months ago, new express lanes fully opened on the MoPac freeway in Austin, Texas— with no toll limit. During planning, officials at the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority heard capped projects elsewhere struggled with congestion, spokesman Steve Pustelnyk said. “We were advised that it would be best to avoid a cap if possible,” he said. So far, the highest toll on the 11-mile stretch has been $10.13, or just under $1 per mile. Also uncapped is a 9-mile express lane that opened in December on I-66 in Northern Virginia. Tolls have spiked to $47.50, and in March, 674

trips cost at least $40, though state officials note those trips were 0.17% of that month’s total. Through March, I-66 express-lane drivers had paid about $6 million in tolls. State officials expect that to hit $12 million by the end of June, and said nearly half will go to a regional transportation commission, with the rest paying for operations, maintenance and enforcement of high-occupancy vehicle restrictions. Mr. Wood said the top I-66 tolls are the highest he knows of in the U.S., at more than $5 per mile, followed by capped tolls in Los Angeles and in Miami, where the $10.50 limit on 7 miles of I-95 comes to $1.50 a mile. The L.A. express lanes “are very, very popular,” said Rick Jager, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He said when speeds dip below 45 mph, the authority can bar paying solo drivers and temporarily revert the lanes to free carpool-only status. In Washington State, officials said the I-405 express lanes, which opened in 2015, aren’t meeting a state legislative target for traffic to go 45 miles an hour or faster at least 90% of the time in peak periods. They blame a seven-mile, one- lane segment that often bottlenecks. “There is a lot of people paying $10 in the morning to use that,” said Ed Barry, director of the state’s toll division. He said the region’s booming economy and growing population are severely taxing area roads. University of Minnesota researchers hired by the Washington legislature found speeds are higher than when the I-405 lanes were toll-free carpool lanes, and that more traffic is moving through the corridor. But they also found that during rush hour, the toll cap kicked in 15% of the time, far too often, said Matt Schmit, a senior researcher at the university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, adding, “There’s no congestion management at that point.” One commenter on a state transportation department blog post wondered why he pays a $10 toll to go “no faster” than cars in the free lanes. The state has tweaked its algorithm so tolls can rise more quickly, as the Minnesota experts had recommended. The state also has used toll revenue to relieve a different bottleneck. But the suggestion to alter the $10 cap hasn’t been embraced. Ms. Griffith said transportation commission members first want to see how other changes play out. One measure Mr. Barry cited is

stepped-up police enforcement against solo drivers who falsely set their in-car transponders to indicate they are carpooling. “We don’t feel like we’ve hit that point where we have to do something,” Ms. Griffith said, adding that I-405 functions much better than it did before the express lanes, when it was “completely failing.” Write to Scott Calvert at scott.calvert@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications The express lane with demand-based tolls on I-394 in Minneapolis was among the first of its kind. A previous version of this article said it was the first. (May 4, 2018) Appeared in the May 5, 2018, print edition as ‘