Monday, November 06, 2006

FDOT Cold to HOT Lanes-- Unless, of course, they can over-engineer at our expense

The Florida Department of Transportation wouldn't know a good idea if it rolled off the Interstate and parallel parked itself between two big, bad expensive ideas on its Talahassee driveway. Last year they started installing on-ramp traffic signals along I-95 that will supposedly help traffic by staggering incoming vehicles. A few days ago it was announced that this multi-million dollar experiment will have to wait at least another year to work out the bugs. Now we hear they will spend $11 million of our money to "study" the feasibility of bringing High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to a small stretch of I-95 between Golden Glades and downtown. Basically, these lanes take vehicles out of the interstate crawl if the drivers are willing to pay for it, i.e, pay a toll to drive in an "express lane." The downside is that these HOT lanes usually replace the free car pool lanes (HOV).

This is the kind of stuff that makes MVB crazy. When you have bureaucrats with easy access to public dollars, they don't waste any time throwing money at a "study." It probably has more to do with protecting their own butts and risking their careers than taking a stand for a common sense solution. In this case, we would urge them to not spend the money on another study but implement the program ASAP. If they need to be reassured that it will work, they need only read favorable reports from Utah and Minnesota which are successfully running HOT lanes. That will save $11 million right there alone. With that money saved, they can put it into building electronic express lanes that constantly monitor and debit vehicles registered to pay and drive.

According to Larry Lebowitz in today's Miami Herald, Utah and Minnesota's first HOT lanes are also the states' first toll roads. Utah spent $2.6 million to restripe one of the lanes on I-15. Drivers can only enter the Express lane at 18 locations. Decal revenue pays for additional staff and troopers to make it all work. Ticket revenue goes to the county, not the state. Pretty cool and simple idea, right?

Minnesota's is a little more sophisticated-- and complicated. Driving the I-394 HOT lanes during rush hour will cost you more than when driving on them at other times of the day. Electronic signs advise drivers what the "going rate" is at any particular time of the day. During an average day, the rate is between $1 and $4. If traffic starts backing up, it can go as high as $8. I'm sure many of those poor bastards who live in Broward but work in Dade wouldn't think twice about paying that much if it meant getting home earlier after a long day at work. By the way, the Minnesota HOT lanes average 55 mph. The average speed on I95 at rush hour is 18 mph.

The Minnesota program cost $16 million to retool the roads. The less sophisticated Utah HOT job cost $2.6 million. Somewhere in between we bet that FDOT $11 million study could fund an actual working HOT lane up and down I95.

But you know what our FDOT wants to do? Instead of retooling the exisiting HOV lanes, they are leaning toward having private vendors design, finance, build and run "two-to-four reversible, elevated lanes built in the medians" with the idea that the builder-operators would be repaid over time through toll revenue. We can only imagine how expensive that little project will be. Can you say, "Billions"?

This is the same kind of approach the FDOT is using with the $1.2 billion Port of Miami tunnel project-- which MVB is very much against (see here). We're beginning to think that the FDOT never really considers any solution to a problem unless it is beyond the realm of common sense.

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