The idea of high-occupancy toll lanes, where variable congestion pricing and occupancy requirements are used to manage traffic volume, is speeding up throughout the U.S. In an era of tight budgets and increasing congestion, state transportation departments, federal agencies and private firms could implement more HOT lane projects in the next few years.

"HOT lanes are one flavor of managed-lane options and will be part of the future of transportation solutions," says Benjamin G. Perez, senior professional associate for PB Consult, New York City. Perez and colleague Gian-Claudia Sciara co-authored a new report on HOT lanes, available at The Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based think tank, publicly advocated HOT lanes in a conference this month.

Some 20 urban regions are studying HOT lanes, which may mean converting existing high occupancy vehicle lanes or adding new lanes. There are four currently operating HOT lane systems: Eight miles of Interstate 15 in San Diego; 10 miles of State Route 91 in Orange County, Calif.; 13 miles of I-10 in Houston; and 13.5 miles of Houston's SR 290.

Since its inception in San Diego in 1996, officials have issued 23,000 transponders for the twin reversible lanes, generating about $2 million a year in a self-supported operation, says Heather Werdick, associate transportation planner for San Diego's Association of Governments. Tolls range from 50 to as high as $8, notes Perez in his report. Toll rates are adjusted every six minutes depending on traffic volume.

SR 91 was a lesson learned when a no-compete clause in the private operator's contract compelled Orange County to drop plans for a $30.6-million widening job and to buy the lanes for $207.5 million (ENR 2/4/02 p. 14). "Operating a HOT facility presents its own challenges when the facility is owned and operated by a private entity," notes Perez. "Selling it to the public and to the biggest challenge."

The Federal Highway Administration awarded 12 pilot projects in value pricing last summer; four are HOT lane studies. One entails the possible conversion of Denver's HOV lanes on I-25. Converting HOV to HOT is relatively inexpensive, claims the Reason Foundation report. It includes installing plastic pylons, message signs and transponder equipment. Building new lanes may cost between $3 million to $7 million per mile per lane.

If done correctly, HOT lanes equally benefit transit, Perez adds. The Federal Transit Administration revised a rule so that HOT lanes could be considered transit facilities and eligible for FTA funding, he notes. A fleet of buses can use them free of charge as rapid transit lanes. The Houston transit agency operates HOT lanes there. In San Diego, revenue goes to the transit agency.

The concept has yet to reach its potential. A Fluor Daniel-led team proposed HOT lanes last year to the Virginia DOT on its Capital Beltway widening that would save right-of-way costs and be almost completely self-financing, says Fluor Daniel project manager Gary Grote. No other team submitted competing proposals and the plan is on hold.