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.


So you will pay more when the traffic is slower? That's one strange pay structure - it is purely punitive.


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.


One man's high value, congestion reducing toll lane is another man's class warfare 'snob lane' for the one percent.


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


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


"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.



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.


"or call up the helicopter."

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


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

Joe Sacco

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.)


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.



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...


What's stopping drivers from driving in the fastlane and then changing lanes when they're approaching the toll?


I don't know about Austin, but in ATL there is an essentially continuous monitoring system. The FAQ for the system states that you (whether you have a "peach pass" or not) will be ticketed by mail if the system detects you entering or leaving the toll lane illegally, i.e. entering the lane without a transponder or crossing a double line to enter or exit the lane.


I have heard descriptions of this system operating in Atlanta, but I haven't seen it in person. Clark Howard, an Atlantan who hosts a syndicated radio show on money matters has expressed his opinion of them.

To paraphrase Clark as close as I can remember, Clark feels that as long as these lanes are making money for the city, they will be negatively perceived as fund-raising mechanism, rather than a way of helping drivers. His suggestion is that if the system is truly intended to relieve congestion, then it should be revenue neutral - charging for lane use at high density, but paying travelers for lane use at low density times. Is essence, those who are willing/able to pay for faster travel at high demand times will subsidize those who are willing/able to shift their commutes to low demand times.

I don't know if it would work, but I like his key point - whether the purpose of the lanes is to improve traffic, or to make money; what the public believes to be the true purpose will determine whether the system works long term.



Alternatively (and maybe this is already the case), funds generated from the plan should be funneled into the public transit system to further ease congestion.

Bobby G

I'm sure this upsets people who favor income redistribution (fiscal liberals).


San Diego has had this on Interstate 15 since at least 1998. I knew I would be late to school if it was over about $2.00.


We already have these in Atlanta on I-85, Northeast of the city. After the initial backlash, it seems to have settled in.