Sunday, January 25, 2015

Go Faster on Tampa Bay Express Lanes

The Florida DOT is holding a series of meetings in the Tampa Bay area this upcoming week to discuss the toll lane project called Tampa Bay Express.
[T]he Florida Department of Transportation has scheduled two workshops this week to reveal the tentative plans to the public. The meetings are scheduled for Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Minnreg Hall, 6340 126th Ave. N., Largo, and on Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Pepin’s Hospitality Centre, 4121 N. 50th St., Tampa. The meetings will be conducted in an open-house format with no formal presentations.
Based on the success of similar express lanes in South Florida, where drivers that are willing to pay the price in tolls that range from $0.50 to $10.50 during the highest congestion, go faster than they may otherwise along the planned routes.

It should be noted the toll lanes are planned for new capacity, and should not reduce existing capacity on the routes.  This should remove some cars from the existing capacity along the interstates, and further help reduce congestion.

FDOT wants to add Express Lanes along Tampa Bay Interstates
That's been my experience in South Florida.  While the express lanes usually move faster than the free lanes, the free lanes are moving better than they did prior to the express lanes.

Even with the surge pricing, a $10.50 toll does sound a bit excessive.  However, in South Florida, the initial max toll was $7.20, but express were still congested at times, so they raised the cap to $10.50.
“The express lanes were routinely failing” because so many people were using them, [Diane Scaccetti, executive director of Florida Turnpike Enterprise]. said. “The express lanes are a product for a more time-reliable trip. It is a demand-based model. And even though you hear about these higher prices, the average peak toll southbound is just $2.97 and the average peak northbound is $3.19.”
There will be times, though, when toll-lane drivers could potentially pay more than $20 for a trip, all paid through Sun Pass, the state’s prepaid electronic toll program.
So hopefully it won't be that successful.  $20 tolls would be an indicator of a total failure on the existing capacity.

These express toll lanes have several advantages,
Steven Polzin, director of Mobility Policy Research for the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, said express lanes are a way to build more roadway capacity with a revenue source to help pay construction costs. “It offers the community additional choices. It brings new money to the table which allows new capacity sooner rather than later.

“It can be a very attractive opportunity to get quality transit service in a corridor,” Polzin said of toll lanes, “because you’ve got congestion-free operation. You can take relatively longer trips at freeway speeds.”

The same type of funding could not be used for a rail system, he said, because capital costs are simply too high to be offset with commuter fees.
Toll lanes offer individuals the freedom of choice, as they pay for themselves by the people who use them.  Express toll lanes will also be used for express bus transit services.  In the case of Howard Frankland Bridge, express lanes also can easily be used for evacuation routes, which a light rail solution cannot do. Ongoing toll collections provide a funding source for further increasing our road capacity.

The routes would be along I-275, I-4, and I-75.  But don't get excited just yet. FDOT is still in the early planning stages, nothing has been finalized. Each segment can take 6 to 7 years to complete. However, there currently is no funding approved, so no one knows if or when the express lanes will be built.

These planned segments cover some of the most congested parts of the Tampa Bay Interstates, each of which have substantial F rated (the worse!) level of service (LOS) segments, according to the 2011 Hillsborough County Level of Service Report (latest available), each segment carrying well over 100,000 vehicles per day.

Clearly, something must be done, as Hillsborough County and the State of Florida have delayed improvements for years.  We have major construction along I-275, I-75, and the Veterans, that we are all exhausted driving through, but those are catch up projects.  It is time we not only catch up but begin to the anticipate the needs of another 600,000 residents by 2040 in Hillsborough County, of which the vast majority will be driving.

As a quick comparison, HART recently announced record ridership for the month of December 2014.
Overall, 2014 was a record year for ridership, HART said. December alone saw 1.27 million passenger trips.
That's good news.  HART was able to increase ridership without a big tax increase. Small wins, for sure, but HART will be part of the long term solutions.

But the real problem remains with our roads.  Just diving a bit deeper into the 2011 Hillsborough County Level of Service Report, there were nearly 1.5 million daily trips on LOS F rated county road segments, and over 2.2 million daily trips on state road segments (includes the interstates),  or over 3.7 million trips per day on failed road segments in Hillsborough County.

With the expected growth in Hillsborough, we can only expect more F rated roads and congestion to increase if we don't get to work on our roads.

Express lanes are one solution among many that must be part of the plans in Tampa Bay.

Lets start now.

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