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California Gov. Brown signs bill OKing $52 billion tax to fix state roads April 28, 2017 17:42

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Friday a bill that will raise $52 billion in new taxes and fees to pay for the state’s roads and bridges.

Brown signed SB1, as he was expected to, without any fanfare or ceremony. He also gave final approval to two companion bills that were needed to lure reluctant lawmakers to support the transportation bill.

Under SB1 the state’s gas excise tax, which is currently 18 cents, will increase by 12 cents per gallon. The excise tax on diesel fuel, which is used by the commercial trucking industry, will increase by 20 cents a gallon to 36 cents. The diesel sales tax also will rise to 5.75 percent from 1.75 percent. Those increases begin Nov. 1.

Beginning Jan. 1, vehicle registration fees will increase by $25 to $175 depending on the value of the vehicle. Owners of zero-emission vehicles will begin paying an additional $100 annual fee beginning in 2020.

Revenue from the taxes and fee increases will pay for repairs and improvements to state and city roads, bridges and public transportation.

“Safe and smooth roads make California a better place to live and strengthen our economy,” Brown said in a statement. “This legislation will put thousands of people to work.”

SB1, by state Sen.Jim Beall, D-San Jose, needed a two-thirds majority to pass the Legislature earlier this month, prompting Brown and legislative leaders to entice hesitant lawmakers with hundreds of millions of dollars for pet projects to earn their votes. That money was put into SB132 and included $400 million requested by state Sen.Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres (Stanislaus County), to extend the Altamont Corridor Express rail line to Ceres and Merced, and $427 million for projects in the Riverside County districts of state Sen.Richard Roth, D-Riverside, and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, D-Corona (Riverside County). Brown signed SB132 on Friday.

Cannella, who owns an engineering company, also negotiated to have leaders support his bill to add indemnification protections for engineers and architects on government contracts. Brown signed that bill, SB496, as well. Cannella’s vote in the state Senate was the lone Republican vote in support of the transportation bill in both houses.

“Californians got a lemon of a gas and car tax hike today,” state Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel (Orange County), said in a statement. “We need better roads, and those can be fixed without raising taxes.”

SB1 passed with the bare minimum votes needed to reach a two-thirds majority, passing the state Senate 27-11 and Assembly 54-26.


Wisconsin DOT Report: Tolling Could Generate Billions While Gov. Walker's Plan Would Make Matters Worse December 29, 2016 22:18

Tolling Wisconsin’s U.S. interstates could raise billions for the state’s most-traveled thoroughfares, but the cost would be borne by motorists, big upfront investments would be needed and it’s unclear if the state could get the federal approval it would require, a new state Department of Transportation study finds.

The study also finds Gov. Scott Walker’s road-funding plan for the next two years, which holds the line on taxes and fees, puts Wisconsin roads on course to worsen “severely” over the next decade.

Findings from the study, commissioned by state lawmakers and Walker last year as part of the 2015-17 state budget, were released Wednesday. A day earlier, Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, with little explanation, announced his resignation effective next month.

Walker’s office did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the study.

The question of how to address state transportation funding is expected to feature prominently in the upcoming 2017-18 legislative session.

Assembly Republican leaders say toll roads, which currently don’t exist in Wisconsin, should be considered.

The DOT study does not recommend for or against tolling, but gives a broad overview of its pros, cons, and of how it would be implemented.

Any plan for toll roads would take at least four years to implement, the study found. It estimates upfront capital costs for tolling Wisconsin’s interstates would range between $350 million and $400 million.

The study assumes highway tolls would be collected electronically — via transponders in vehicles or by photographing vehicle license plates and mailing toll bills to vehicle owners. Such a system eliminates the need for motorists to stop to pay a toll, and for toll plazas that restrict highway access.

Depending on the chosen toll rate, the state could net between $14 billion and $41 billion from tolling on interstates from 2020 through 2050, the study found. The numbers are based on a statewide network of tolls that would be collected on all Wisconsin’s U.S. interstates: 94, 90, 43, 41 and 39.

The revenues would come from motorists, including in- and out-of-state residents. The study attempts to project the share of motorists who would avoid interstates to dodge the tolls.

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Under the study’s projections, a motorist would pay between as little as $2.72 or as much as $8.16 to travel from Madison to Milwaukee.

The first scenario is based on an average toll rate of 4 cents a mile; the second, an average rate of 12 cents a mile. The range of rates is comparable to other states, such as Illinois, that collect highway tolls, according to the study.

Under the same scenarios, a trip from Madison to La Crosse would cost as little as $5.16 or as much as $15.48.

Even if state leaders could agree on a toll-road plan — which is far from assured — another big hurdle would be getting federal permission to toll U.S. interstates, where the most revenue could be generated.

The study notes that a 2015 change in federal law might allow Wisconsin to vie with other states for spots in a federal pilot program to authorize interstate tolling.

Wisconsin’s transportation-funding woes stem from rising construction costs and stagnant revenues in the state transportation fund, which come almost entirely from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. As the state’s road-funding picture has worsened in recent years, lawmakers increasingly have resorted to greater borrowing and delaying major highway projects, such as the Verona Road expansion in Dane County.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and fellow Republicans who control the Assembly are open to a tax or fee hike for transportation. Walker opposes such an increase unless matched, dollar for dollar, with a tax or fee cut elsewhere in the budget. Republicans who control the state Senate are split on the question, according to their majority leader, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.

The new study reinforces what Gottlieb told the Assembly Transportation Committee earlier this month: without new revenues, more projects would be delayed and the state’s roads would continue to crumble.

On a path following the plan Walker outlined in September, the state would face a transportation funding shortfall of $852 million over the decade, the study found.

Road conditions would worsen “severely” during the next decade, according to the study. And planning for road expansions would grind to a halt, with planning for them not even undertaken until 2055.


MassDOT Moving to Next Phase of Turnpike Plaza Reconstruction December 22, 2016 23:35

The first phase of the state's move to remove all toll plazas and implement all-electronic tolling on the Massachusetts Turnpike finished ahead of schedule in November. But the work isn't over yet.

MassDOT will hold four public meetings in January and February across the state to update the public on the ongoing reconstruction of all 23 Mass. Pike interchanges where the toll plazas once stood. 

MassDOT says construction at the interchanges will continue throughout the winter months as weather permits. Although the plazas are gone, crews will continue to work on drainage issues at the former plaza locations as well as repaving, adding lighting, guardrails and other safety features. 

Ongoing work also includes focusing on drainage issues in the area of former toll plazas and in some cases means the need to install catch basins and culverts.  Other activities underway include repaving road surfaces and adding lighting, guardrail, and other safety features.

"Each of the 23 work zones has its own management, design, and construction plan," MassDOT said in a press release.

All work is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017. 

The public is invited to the meetings to hear updates and more of what drivers should expect. But the meetings are also an opportunity for the public to give feedback to the state. 

The following is public meeting schedule:

Wednesday, Jan. 11, Westborough Town Hall, 34 West Main Street
Plaza Focus: Sturbridge / I-84, Worcester/Auburn/I-290, Worcester/Rt. 146, Worcester/Millbury, Westborough/I-495, Framingham, Natick/Rt. 30
(If weather postpones the Jan. 11 meeting, this meeting will be held Jan. 25)
Wednesday , Jan. 18, Brighton, WGBH Yawkey Theater, One Guest Street
Plaza Focus: Weston, Allston/Brighton, Ted Williams Tunnel
(If weather postpones the Jan. 18 meeting, this meeting will be held Jan. 26)
Monday, Jan. 23, Northampton, District 2 Highway Office, 811 N. King Street
Plaza Focus: Westfield, Westfield, West Springfield / I-91, Chicopee, Springfield / I-291 Ludlow, Palmer
(If weather postpones the Jan. 23 meeting, this meeting will be held Jan. 24)
Tuesday, Feb.  7, Lenox, District 1 Highway Office, 270 Main Street
Plaza Focus: West Stockbridge and Lee

NY State Is Going Cashless December 22, 2016 23:30

ALBANY – A cashless toll system is coming to New York State – but for now the Cuomo administration is only saying the electronic collection efforts will be based at bridges and tunnels in New York City.

Given the move by other states to cashless toll collections – most recently New York’s neighbor Massachusetts on its turnpike system – transportation advocates have said it’s only a matter of time before collection methods move to the Thruway as a way to bring high-speed toll collection zones statewide.

The Thruway Authority has talked about electronic toll collection efforts for years. It is focusing its efforts, for now, on the area between Yonkers and Harriman, including the replacement span for the Tappan Zee Bridge between Rockland and Westchester counties.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said fixed toll booths will be replaced at New York City bridges and tunnels administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority beginning in January. Motorists will either pay tolls via E-ZPass or will have their vehicle’s license plates photographed and then get a bill in the mail.

To cut down on toll scofflaws, State Police Superintendent George P. Beach said troopers will be stationed at each of the electronic toll areas. Within five seconds of a vehicle going through the area, troopers will be sent information on a car or truck whose owner has not paid tolls. The drivers will then be pulled over.

In January, Beach said a new regulation will kick in that will allow the state to suspend the licenses of drivers who have failed to pay three or more toll notices in a five-year period. That rule will affect drivers statewide.

Beach said the changes are needed “to ensure everyone is paying their fair share.’’


Indiana Funding Taskforce Recommends Gas Tax and Vehicle Fee Increases, and Push for Tolling Interstates December 20, 2016 00:06

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Recommendations to pay for road improvements in Indiana include increasing gas taxes, tolls and a vehicle fee.

Republican state Rep. Tim Brown of Crawfordsville and Republican state Sen. Luke Kenley of Noblesville on Monday announced the recommendations of the task force they co-chair. The panel was created as part of a two-year road funding plan passed earlier this year. Members were tasked with finding new revenue to pay for the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Kenley and Brown said in a statement that the options announced Monday “will be carefully debated and scrutinized” when the legislative session starts next month.

Kenley says he’s confident lawmakers will find a “fiscally responsible plan” to pay for Indiana roads.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma says the road funding plan is a “top priority.”


Report Says New I-580 Express Lanes Are Already Benefiting Bay Area Motorists August 08, 2016 21:08

Motorists took nearly 1.9 million trips on Interstate 580’s new express lanes in Alameda County in the first four months the lanes opened to vehicle traffic earlier this year, according to a recent report.

The $345 million project opened on the notoriously congested Tri-Valley corridor in mid-February to solo drivers, who pay an extra toll to use the lane, and to carpoolers, who can drive for free.

The first full month of operation saw around 549,000 trips along the east- and westbound lanes, growing to 647,000 trips in May — an 18 percent increase from March — according to a report presented to the Alameda County Transportation Commission on Thursday.

Tess Lengyel, ACTC’s executive director of planning and policy, said motorists are already seeing the benefits. Average hourly speeds in the express lanes are estimated to be between 10 and 33 mph faster than the average hourly speeds in general purpose lanes during the morning rush-hour commute, according to the report.

So far, Lengyel said there’s been a bit of a learning curve to using the lanes correctly. The majority of motorists — or around 67 percent — were either carpool or HOV-qualifying vehicles with a valid FasTrak Flex tag, or single-occupant cars with either a flex or standard FasTrak tag, which is required to use the lane. The remaining 33 percent either had no tags or invalid tags, according to the report.

“It’s a new system, so people are just getting familiar with the lane,” she said, adding that the agency has been seeing more people adopting the correct toll tags.

Drivers paid an average toll of $1.55 to use the westbound lane and $2.40 to use the eastbound lane in May, and have generated over $2 million in total revenue since the lanes opened, the report said. It remains to be seen, however, whether that revenue will cover the costs of operating the lanes, Lengyel said.

“We actually are watching this very closely because we haven’t gotten in all the bills to understand how much this is costing compared to revenue,” Lengyel said.

It took several years for revenues to cover the costs of operating the express lane on southbound Interstate 680, the first express lane to open in Northern California, though Lengyel said the lane is now paying for itself.

The two sets of lanes on I-680 and I-580 in Alameda County, along with express lanes on Highway 237 in Santa Clara County, are just the first planned or under construction in the Bay Area. Ultimately, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, along with various transportation agencies in the Bay Area, hope to construct a 550-mile network of express lanes by 2035, though the experience with the existing express lanes so far has been mixed, said Randy Rentschler, the MTC’s legislation and public affairs director.

Rentschler said there’s almost been too much demand for the lanes on Hwy 237, whereas demand for the lanes on I-680 has been inconsistent. He was hopeful though that I-580 will strike the right balance.

“You have sustained traffic on I-580,” Rentschler said. “Everyone is confident the express lanes will do what they are supposed to do.”

That means the express lanes should save time for its users, relieve some pressure on the general purpose lanes and pay for their operating costs, he said.

Joel Ramos, the regional planning director for transportation advocacy nonprofit TransForm, said the lanes could also be a boon for public transit. He’s hoping the express lanes on I-580 will encourage express bus service on the freeway, especially for residents in the Livermore area and beyond who have limited access to BART.

“From our perspective, we would like to see those lanes getting more transit quickly so people who are using that corridor could actually have a viable alternative to driving,” Ramos said.


TransCore's NATIONALPASS Now Accepted by Kansas Pike August 02, 2016 20:57

The Kansas Turnpike Authority announced it will now accept NATIONALPASS, TransCore’s nationally interoperable toll payment solution. “This new electronic transponder will help provide a more seamless travel for those who frequently drive in multiple states, like those who regularly travel for business,” said Steve Hewitt, KTA’s CEO. “We are pleased to be part of TransCore’s effort to improve nationwide interoperability.” Kansas is the twentieth state in which NATIONALPASS is now accepted.

The EZ-Pass. From World War 1 to today. July 26, 2016 20:56

The E-ZPass is one of those inventions that makes you wonder how we survived without automatic tolls. It's been around for only 24 years, but the technology that lets you zip through toll booths was born at the start of World War I. Here is a short history of the E-ZPass.

The Theremin

First, there was the theremin. The world's first, mass-produced electronic instrument, it is played by waving your hands between two metal antennas, no touching required. It was invented in 1920 by Leon Theremin, a Russian scientist from St. Petersburg, and is still in use today - it's that eerie sound on the soundtracks to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Spellbound." It was imitated in the Beach Boys' song "Good Vibrations."  

 

 

 

The invention was a global phenomenon. Headlines at the time read: "Magician of Music Creates Music out of Thin Air." 

"Even scientists, until they really understood the principle, were kind of baffled by what he was doing," said Albert Glinsky, author of Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage

The Soviets sent Theremin to France, Germany and England to demonstrate his instrument. In 1927, he was sent to New York City where he performed at Carnegie Hall and held private salons. 

He ended up staying at the Plaza Hotel for four years before moving into an apartment on 54th Street, across from where the MoMA is today. He turned his home into a laboratory where he kept developing other types of touchless technologies. He created a crystal ball for Macy's that went from opaque to clear when a person approached it.  He also worked on a gun detector for Alcatraz prison. 

Theremin's instrument was produced by the electronics company RCA, which allowed him to visit the factory, and get an inside view of American manufacturing.

This was useful for him, because he was leading a double life. He wasn't just an inventor, he was also spying for the Russians.

 

 

 

Though he enjoyed living in America, he was still a Russian scientist. And he was loyal to the Soviet government, which meant he had to continue spying for them.  

"I think this was a Faustian bargain for him," Glinksy said.

But after 11 years, Theremin was broke and in debt. In 1938, he hitched a ride on a freighter back to Russia. 

But instead of receiving a hero's welcome, he was sentenced to a Siberian prison camp. The political winds had changed, and Theremin was out of favor. He was charged with aiding the Americans, although there was no evidence that he'd ever been disloyal to the USSR.

Several months later, he was transferred to a sharashka, a prison for scientists. It was then when he took spying to a new level. 

The Bug

Theremin was tasked by the government to find a way to listen to conversations in the American Ambassador's office. Building off his previous work using magnetic fields, he came up with a bug, the size of a quarter that could be activated several buildings away by microwave beams. When activated, it sent signals back to a receiver that decoded the information. 

The device was embedded in a seal of the United States and presented to the American Ambassador in Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, on July 4, 1965, by a group of Soviet Boy Scouts. It remained undetected for seven years, until an American ham radio operator accidentally discovered the signal.

A replica of Theremin's bugging device at the National Cryptologic Museum.

 

 

  

 

The Chance Meeting

Mario Cardullo, a Brooklyn-born inventor, began his career working at Bell Laboratories, specifically on jet propulsion for Apollo 11. He's a member of George Washington University's Engineering Hall of Fame, holds four degrees, and was given a bronze medal for outstanding service from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Cardullo wasn't the first person to experiment with Radio Frequency Identification, which uses electromagnetic fields to transfer data. But he was one of the first to file a patent on the technology that makes E-ZPass work.

In July 1969, on a flight from St. Paul, Minn. to Washington, D.C,  Cardullo happened to sit next to an engineer from IBM. Cardullo says the engineer was trying to figure out a way to track train cars.

So right there, Cardullo whipped out a notebook and sketched a solution.

Cardullo took 1930s-era, friend-or-foe radar technology, and added a modern twist: memory. By 1970, he'd filed a patent. Cardullo imagined that his invention could revolutionize toll collection, how medical records are transmitted, even change the way doorways operate.

A year later, he landed a meeting with the Port Authority to demonstrate how electronic toll collection could work on the George Washington Bridge.

His prototype was the size of two packs of cigarettes.

"The first thing they say to me was, well, nobody will every put that on the window of their car. It's too big," Cardullo told WNYC recently, from his home office in Alexandria, Virginia.

He reassured them he could make it smaller. They also worried about scofflaw drivers who'd cruise through the lane without paying.

"I said, you take a picture of their license plate and you send them a ticket," Cardullo said. "And the guy said to us, 'no way, that would be a violation of their constitutional rights.'" 

The Port Authority said no.

A sketch of Mario Cardullo's RFID transponder included in his patent filing in 1970.

But after the meeting, according to Cardullo, the Port Authority took his idea and shopped it around to other companies to see if they could make a similar device. No one from the Port Authority could confirm or deny this. Most of their archives were destroyed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. According to reports, the agency tested other devices made by Westinghouse, Philips and General Electric. 

Cardullo's patent expired in 1990. 

The Bureaucrat 

Larry Yermack was the CFO at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in the early 1990s when, he said, it was just another "sleepy agency."

Yermack says engineers at the authority were urging him to install an electronic toll collection system. Basically, they wanted what Cardullo had suggested three decades earlier. He said the numbers just made sense.

"You could process 250, 300 vehicles an hour through a cash lane, and they were able to process 600, 700 through a coin lane," he said. "We knew you could get north of 1,000 vehicles an hour through an electronic toll collection lane."

But rather than just install it in New York City, Yermack realized it would be more effective if all the local agencies were using the same system. "What if we had tags that cooperated with the other toll authorities, in fact, what if we had the same tags?" he'd said at the time.

In August 1993, residents of Rockland county got a taste of the cashless toll booth. It was installed on the New York State Thruway at Spring Valley. Norway had installed the first electronic toll collection booth in 1987; Dallas got the electronic TollTag system in 1989. But what those places didn't have was a pass that could cross state lines and function across several toll authorities.

That finally came to fruition one snowy night in March 1994, after a nearly 20-hour meeting on Randall's Island. Seven toll authorities from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania agreed to use the same device.

The heads of the various agencies went home from this meeting worried they'd made a career wrecking decision. "Everybody in all the authorities was worried whether it was going to work or not. I mean this could've been a colossal failure," Yermack said.

In 1995, EZ-Pass was unveiled in the city, quietly, with no ribbon cutting and no fan fare. Just a new, dedicated lane with a purple sign and a new slogan.

The Future

EZ-Pass isn't going away, but you may have noticed that the toll plazas are disappearing. Across the country there are 35 cashless toll booths in operation, according to E-Z Pass. One of them is on the Tappan Zee Bridge. The toll booth has been removed and instead drivers pass under a metal structure installed with an EZ-Pass reader and a camera. If you have an EZ Pass, you sail through, with the toll deducted electronically. If you don't, it takes a picture of your plates and mails the bill. No stopping, no toll booth.

A recent Pew study called toll collectors a "disappearing breed," and noted states like Massachusetts plan to have all toll booths gone by the end of 2016. The New York State Thruway helped its toll collectors on the Tappan Zee Bridge find other positions in the department or at other toll plazas.

E-ZPass has its limits. It's only accepted in 16 states. Once you pass Illinois going west, or North Carolina going south, you're out of network.

And after nearly half a century, no one has figured out to solve the problem of traffic delays at the toll plazas on the George Washington Bridge. 

  

Toll booth cashier Henry Gregorio has worked in a toll booth since 1980. He knows his days are numbered, but he also loves the job.

 


CDOT Starts to Collect Tolls on North I-25 Express Lanes July 13, 2016 20:20

DENVER - Toll collection began on the North Interstate 25 Express Lanes, between US 36 and 120th Avenue, on Tuesday.

The lanes had been open since mid-March for testing with waived fees to give drivers the opportunity to learn how to use the lane or sign up for an ExpressToll account.

According to the High Performance Transportation Enterprise, this is the third Express Lanes project to open in Colorado in the last few years.

The US 36 Express Lane opened in July 2015, and the Interstate 70 Mountain Express Lane opened in December.

The Colorado Department of Transportation says the base rate for ExpressToll account for pass holders will be between one and three dollars. Without an account, drivers will use the License Plate Toll and will pay the toll plus an additional fee to cover the increased costs of processing the transaction without a pass. License Plate Tolls range from three to six dollars.

Find the toll schedule here: http://bit.ly/29nmgju.

Get an ExpressToll pass here: https://www.expresstoll.com/.

Illinois and Real Estate Developer Agree on Private Toll Bridge Plan July 12, 2016 20:15

Faced with a shortage of infrastructure capital and a big employer that needs help, the state of Illinois is moving into the private toll bridge business.

In a rather unique twist today, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced a deal under which CenterPoint Properties will build a $170 million to $190 million private toll bridge linking Interstate 80 and its huge multimodal facility in Will County.

Rauner said the first-of-its kind deal, a variation on the public/private partnership model, will alleviate traffic congestion on local roads that weren't built to handle fleets of 18-wheelers while strengthening the local economy.

"This project is long overdue and will only enhance the region's position as a freight hub for North America and an economic engine for the state," Rauner said in a statement. "Illinois needs more projects just like these creative solutions to fund infrastructure."

Under the deal, which Rauner said has the backing of the city of Joliet and Will County, but won't need General Assembly sign-off, CenterPoint would be authorized to build and operate a new toll bridge on Houbolt Road over the Des Plaines River and the BNSF tracks.

The Illinois Department of Transportation will contribute $21 million to the project to widen Houbolt and reconfigure its interchange with I-80. When complete, the project will provide two lanes of traffic in each direction from I-80 to CenterPoint's land, serving an estimated 11,000 vehicles a day and rising.

Construction could begin next year, with the bridge opening to traffic in late 2018 or early 2019.

The new deal could serve as a model for other distribution centers being proposed at the southwestern edge of the metropolitan area.

One bit of initial positive reaction came from U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, whose district is near the CenterPoint site and who specializes in transportation work in Congress.

“I've said from the beginning that this is a private enterprise,” Lipinski said, referring CenterPoint and the impact it has had on the Joliet area. “They need to be part of the solution rather than putting this all on taxpayers, and it looks like they are.”

Update 12:45 p.m.—More reaction, positive reaction, is coming from Peter Skosey, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Skosey termed the plan “an interesting model for financing road improvements in the future. Without more dedicated capital dollars from gas tax and other sources, tolls offer a great way to target the financing to the project being accomplished."

And Rauner, in comments at the event, said he hopes to move on a big state capital bill “as soon as we have a balanced budget in place.” Said the guv: “We can grow our economy by investing in our infrastructure.”

While truckers won't like paying tolls, CenterPoint will be “very incented” to keep rates reasonable so that its facility gets as much business as possible, Rauner added.


Austin's First Foray into Variable Tolling Could Start Next Month July 11, 2016 20:05

No one knows what will happen when the toll lanes open on North MoPac Boulevard.

Yes, there will be an extra lane in each direction of MoPac for the 11-mile stretch north of Lady Bird Lake to help ease congestion. The northbound leg starting just south of Far West Boulevard and running to Parmer Lane should open later this summer, followed by the rest of the northbound lane and the entire southbound stretch by year’s end.

But with Austin getting its first taste of variable tolls, what will the prices look like and how many drivers will pay for the express experience?

Around the United States, there are 30 urban highways that have some form of variable tolls. But many of those roads have “time of day” tolls, charges that vary on a set schedule and typically are highest during rush hours.

North MoPac tolls, on the other hand, will have no such schedule and will change in response to traffic flow as often as every five minutes. And even among U.S. roads with “dynamic” tolls such as North MoPac, many have a maximum toll. North MoPac will have no toll ceiling.

On the vast majority of those 30 roads, including all but one in Texas, cars with two or three occupants may use the toll lanes for free or at discounted rates. Not on MoPac.

Most of those other roads have two or more toll lanes in each direction. Not here, where, because of space constraints, there will be just one MoPac toll lane northbound and one southbound.

Most projects elsewhere separate the toll lanes from the adjacent free lanes with concrete barriers. On North MoPac, though, pylons and stripes on the pavement will be all that stand between those who pay and those who don’t.

Officials last week said that partial opening of the northbound toll lane could happen as soon as August, pushing it back from June and July opening dates and adding to a series of delays that have plagued the project. Will tolls skyrocket at rush hour? And what will all this mean to traffic on the free lanes?

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is building the toll lanes, has commissioned studies that tell it all will be well — that the system will nimbly toggle the tolls to keep traffic flowing in the express lanes at 45 mph or more, and that the levy will remain reasonable even at rush hour.

But officials can’t be sure. And what happens with North MoPac will weigh heavily as the area ponders other toll lane projects, such as MoPac south of Lady Bird Lake and Interstate 35, envisioned as having variable tolls.

“It’s still a crapshoot on how many people are going to want to get into that lane, and what are the behavior characteristics of Austinites,” said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority since 2003. “How frustrated are they by going 5 mph, and what will they pay to go to 50 mph? Our models tell us it will be $3 or less to go the whole way, and I could see the Austin commuter saying, ‘I’m willing to pay more than that.’ I hear that all the time: ‘Just give us a lane.’ ”

A matter of time

Tim Reilly says it’s all about the value of time.

Reilly, the mobility authority’s operations director, said drivers have perceptions about how valuable saving a few minutes on a trip might be to them. But that varies, he said, from person to person, road to road, city to city.

Once a new toll lane opens and people try it, their perception evolves as they confront the cost — particularly if those tolls fluctuate, other toll operators have told Reilly.

“When you first open it, a lot of people start using it and say, ‘Wow, I love this thing,’ ” Reilly said in an interview at the authority’s traffic management center in Cedar Park along the 183-A toll road. That enthusiasm lasts “until they get their first bill and realize how much they’re spending and say, ‘Well, I can’t use it that much.’ ”

Others avoid it at first, he said, but then give it a try after witnessing people streaming by them in the toll lane.

“They use it and say, ‘This was worth it.’ So it takes months until people figure out what their actual value of time is,” Reilly said.

Monitoring the flow

That’s where Reilly’s small staff and the “algorithm” come in.

North MoPac traffic will be monitored at all times by 59 “wavetronic” sensors and 17 cameras scattered along those 11 miles. The sensors, Reilly and toll operations manager Tracie Brown said, will constantly record traffic volumes in all of the lanes: the one toll lane and three free lanes in each direction.

The algorithm crafted by consultant Kapsch TrafficComm, with what amounts to coaching by its human overseers, will use those volumes to meet the authority’s goal of keeping traffic flowing at a speed of at least 45 mph.

Toll rates will be both the carrot and the stick.

When traffic is light on North MoPac, both in the toll and free lanes, the toll rate will be at its minimum rate of 25 cents for each of the two northbound and two southbound sections, or 50 cents to go the whole 11 miles. Those rates are likely to pertain throughout the night, at midday and for long stretches on weekends.

But as the sensors detect traffic volumes thickening on the free lanes, which are a precursor to more people beginning to choose the toll option, the toll rate will begin to creep up. Overhead signs stationed a quarter-mile to a half-mile before each of the four entryways to the toll lanes will alert drivers to what the current toll is, giving each of them a chance to make that “value of time” decision.

As rush hour approaches and volumes begin to rise rapidly, the sensors and the underlying software will switch their attention to the toll lanes. The point, Reilly said, will be to maintain speeds between 46 mph and 54 mph in the toll lanes.

Entering traffic volumes of 1,550 to 1,850 vehicles per hour on each lane would probably trigger such speeds, and the tolls would rise to whatever it takes to discourage enough people from taking the toll lane to keep volumes in the express lane from rising above that level.

Then, as traffic ebbs at the end of rush hour, the tolls would go down to bring some other drivers back into the fold.

The algorithm, Reilly said, relies on a history of traffic volumes and toll rates, then adjusts to what is happening on any given day. That means, he said, the authority and Kapsch have had to construct a virtual history for the beginning of operations, a set of predictions. After a few months of human and computer tweaks (using not only the sensors but the camera images relayed to that Cedar Park center), and that adjustment period for the public, he said, “we’ll let the algorithm do the work” absent wrecks or other unusual disruptions of the toll lane traffic.

The Dallas experience

After a five-year construction project ended in September, Interstate 635 crossing North Dallas has had dynamic tolling on six added lanes over a 13-mile stretch from Interstate 35 to U.S. 75. Drivers with at least one passenger can also use the toll lanes at a discount.

A private consortium built the toll lanes (along with revamped free lanes and frontage roads) and will operate them for decades under an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation.

According to a June report by the Metroplex’s Regional Transportation Council, average speeds in the free lanes have increased from a morning rush hour low of about 30 mph to more than 50 mph, and to more than 60 mph in the evening peak period. The toll lanes, meanwhile, are running at close 70 mph all day long, the report said.

Tony Hartzel, a spokesman for TxDOT’s Dallas district, said the public has accepted the varying tolls.

“We actually get a lot of appreciation,” Hartzel said. “What we always say is, it gives you an alternative; you don’t have to use them. But people are using them, and what it is showing is that it is improving traffic on both the regular lanes and the (toll) lanes.”

The great unknown

The delay in getting the MoPac project finished (it will be more than a year late) and the construction-related headaches have not put Austinites in an appreciative mood. And with just one added lane on each side of North MoPac, open only to toll payers, transit buses and Capital Metro registered van pools, sharp spikes in tolls could happen.

Toll lanes on Interstate 405 east of Seattle have hit a $10 maximum for 17 miles several times in the past year, and a 16-mile Atlanta toll project on Interstate 85 has seen prices as high as $11, according to news reports.

“That’s the great unknown: How much demand is there in the marketplace?” Heiligenstein said. “If it opens up and a week later we’re seeing $5 or $7 rates, that just means there are more people willing to pay that. But that express lane is going to free up capacity on the general purpose lanes. Until that fills back up with latent demand, I think the toll price is going to stay pretty reasonable.”

 



MassDOT Rail Project Could Open the Door to I-93 Managed Lanes Construction July 08, 2016 20:02

The Patriot Ledger (Quincy) reports that a proposed route for MassDOT’s South Coast Rail project could open the way for a widening of the I-93 section called the Southeast Expressway. The department “suggested last week that I-93 could be widened from eight lanes to 10, at the same time as commuter rail was expanded.” The plan calls for building two managed toll lanes in the middle of the highway’s general purpose lanes. Public-private partnership is mentioned as a possibility.