Toll to use HOV lanes

Maricopa County transportation officials are considering whether to allow motorists to pay a toll to use HOV lanes like the ones on I-10 adjacent to Ahwatukee Foothills, while continuing to allow carpools and buses to use them for free.

Ari Cohn/AFN

Toll lanes that enable drivers to pay a fee to bypass heavy traffic could be coming to some Phoenix area freeways, possibly including Interstate 10 adjacent to Ahwatukee Foothills.

The Maricopa Association of Governments in November approved spending up to $500,000 to study the proposal, said Bob Hazlett, a MAG senior engineer.

"We're right now in the middle of identifying a consultant who can help us out with that," Hazlett said.

So-called "high occupancy toll" lanes would be a first for Arizona. The HOT lanes could be repurposed HOV lanes that would continue to serve carpools and buses for free, or they could be new lanes added to the freeway, according to MAG's summary of the proposal.

Around the country, more than a dozen agencies already are experimenting with them in places such as Houston, Miami, Orange County and Washington, D.C., Hazlett said.

The idea is to allow drivers to pay a variable toll, depending on the time of day and the level of traffic congestion, to bypass highway gridlock, he said.

"It just adds a little more reliability. You have to have a guaranteed minimum travel speed. The idea is to guarantee a travel time between point A and point B," Hazlett said. "You don't have to take it every day. You take it when the reliability becomes that important to you."

It also removes some cars from the congested non-toll lanes, helping to free up traffic, he said.

"I like the idea," said Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, whose district includes Ahwatukee Foothills. "Whatever we can do to get congestion off the freeway and get people to work faster. We're in a parking lot now. It takes that many people off the freeway."

Hazlett said the first phase of the study will determine if it's feasible to install the lanes on local freeways and interstates. That portion of the study could be completed by the end of 2011, he said.

"We don't know if we have the traffic levels. You have to have a certain traffic threshold to make it work," he said.

If warranted, a second phase would move into the freeway selection and design process, he said. That could be done in 2013.

So far, it's unclear who would operate the system, how much the toll rates might be, or how officials would monitor the lanes to make sure they're being used properly.

"Enforcement is another issue we'll have to look at," Hazlett said.

It's also unclear how much revenue local agencies might expect to realize from the program, he said.

Hazlett said studies of programs implemented elsewhere indicate the lanes are not used exclusively by the rich, but also by those in a hurry and short on time.

"Just about every study we've seen thus far has shown us the people who use these lanes are across all income strata," he said.

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