Austin’s New Toll Lanes

(Photo: Lisa Padilla)

Traffic in Austin is a mess, mainly because the city is long and linear (east-west travel is made difficult by the topography). In increasingly long rush hours, traffic barely moves on either north-south freeway. To solve the problem, the city is adding one lane in each direction to one freeway, but there will be tolls on that lane. Moreover, the tolls will be variable — but not by time of day or day of week. They will vary with traffic speed, rising when the average speed in the lane drops below 50 mph. Pretty neat — peak-load pricing taken to its logical extreme. The technology that makes this possible is fairly recent. And it’s a good example of how technical improvements raise well-being — in this case, allowing those whose value of time is high to substitute money for their time and reducing congestion on the “free” lanes for the rest of us.

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  1. Toothy says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • MikeT says:

      The pricing is there to keep the traffic moving swiftly. If you enter the lane you’re going to slow it down so once it’s “full” the price of entry goes up to discourage you from entering. “full” in this case is described as the lane dropping below 50 mph.

      > 50mph $0.50 to use the fast lane
      “Hey that’s faster than this free lane. Heck for $0.50 I’ll jump in”

      < 50mph $1.50 to use the "fast lane"
      "hmm $1.50… nah. I'll just wait it out here at 20 mph"

      With correct pricing the fast lane should maintain around 50mph.

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    • mmm says:

      Yes, punitive in a manner to encourage less use. As in, you’re getting in the fast lane at a time of high volume so you’re going to pay for it. A scheme like old cellular phone plans or electricity in some (most?) places.

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  2. gernn says:

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    • pawnman says:

      But you neglect the fact that the people paying for the toll lane are still getting out of the other lanes, speeding up traffic for everyone else whether they pay the toll or not.

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  3. l says:

    Virginia will begin using this same congestion pricing strategy by the end of November on its portion of I-495, the Washington Beltway.

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  4. Steve says:

    Is there a link you can post for more information about this?

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  5. Nylund says:

    “allowing those whose value of time is high to substitute money for their time”

    Well, it’s really a ratio of your value for each. If you believe that money is also subject to diminishing marginal utility, it may be not so much that you value time a lot, but rather, you mayhave so much money that you don’t value small amounts of it very much at all. IE, you’re rich enough that the monetary loss is inconsequential.

    I’m not sure this distinction matters and if the “rich” flee the congested highways, leaving it less-congested for everyone else, it does benefit everyone else. My point is merely that it may not be solely who values time the most, but who values money the least, and that may be a function of one’s wealth more than anything else.

    Perceptions may matter though. Even if the “rich,” by taking another route, lesson congestion for everyone else, the perceived notion that those with money can bypass the problems everyone else must deal with may not sit well with everyone.

    Imagine a hyperbole of that situation. Imagine the crowded bathrooms at a large event (say a sports game, or a fair) where people have to wait in long lines to use the restroom, but anyone who pays $100 can use a separate line-free bathroom. My bet is, people without a $100 to spare will resent those that use it, even if you try to explain that every person who goes to the private bathroom is one less person in line for the free one.

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    • James says:

      Ah, but the true rich don’t commute on the highways – certainly not during rush hour. We either telecommute (and it doesn’t take much money to be rich like that, just good planning), come in late and leave early, or call up the helicopter.

      I suppose this says something about human nature. When faced with a problem, such as traffic congestion, treat the symptom by adding more roads, rather than dealing with the cause. As with the half-billion spent on about 8 miles of new freeway here.

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      • Matthew says:

        “or call up the helicopter.”

        I am pretty sure the people that do this are the 1% of the 1%.

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  6. Owen says:

    A good explanation and conversation in the comment section over at the Austin Contrarian.

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    • Joe Sacco says:

      Thanks for that link.

      While it does describe the reason why this is beneficial for congestion-reduction, I’m left with a basic question of how it works.

      Is it still a combination of cameras and license plate readers? Do you get charged for a fixed amount of time that you’re in the lane while normal traffic is slow? (For example, you’re charged $3 for every ten minutes that you drive in this lane while normal traffic is below 60mph.)

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  7. Daniel says:

    We have these in Minneapolis, and (over here at least) they waive the fee for carpools.

    The traffic-speed metric that determines price is a little flimsy in my experience. I recall one morning this summer–what I’d call the epitome of situations where this lane would be useful–there was about a mile of 10 MPH traffic followed by normal 60 MPH speeds–some kind of a gawkers slowdown; I recall looking at the fee for passing it in the luxury lane: eight bucks, or the maximum fee imposed in any situation under their current pricing.

    To spend $8 on five fewer minutes in traffic seems less-related to buying utility than it does averting the stressful feeling of being trapped. Rather than seeing these lanes as things that give actual benefit I see them more as psychological devices–particularly because they’ll open the lane if there’s a big accident anyway.

    Dr. Hammermesh, after this new lane has been around for a while I’d love to be corrected with a follow-up post giving a breakdown of time saved/cost, until then my experience leaves me skeptical.

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    • Impossibly Stupid says:

      I would also like to see in the followup a time distribution of the fees charged. While it is cute and all to base it on monitored speed, I suspect the usage will still follow the same rush hour patterns everyone else experiences congestion.

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  8. DA says:

    I-95 in and around the Miami, FL metropolitan area (which has similar problems with being long and linear) has had this type of program for a couple of years now. There is probably enough data already to start understanding the costs and benefits of this type of program and I assume someone has looked at it since these “Express Lanes” are currently being expanded north of Miami as well…

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