Recognize All HOT Lanes as Fixed Guideways for Transit

Our recommendations for reforming surface transportation policy have been so well received that we want to offer two more ideas. Our latest recommendation focuses on high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that reduce congestion and provide a virtual guideway for express bus service. My colleague Robert Poole and I recommend that the federal statute be changed so that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) counts all high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes count as “fixed guideway miles.”

Federal transit policy recognizes that an HOV lane converted to a variably tolled HOT lane provides buses with a “virtually exclusive guideway,” since variable pricing permits buses and cars to travel uncongested even during peak periods. Such HOT lane miles are counted toward a metro area’s total of “fixed guideway miles” for funding purposes, if used by transit buses. But the Federal Transit Administration withholds this designation for HOT lanes added as new capacity, even though such lanes function identically to those converted from HOV lanes. Region-wide BRT/express bus service will be fostered by creating seamless HOT networks. But a large fraction of such networks will be new capacity, since most freeways do not have HOV lanes to convert.

Changing the policy will require two modifications. First, revise the definition of “fixed guideway miles” to include all HOT lanes, whether HOV conversions or new capacity. This would acknowledge the functional identity of priced lanes as virtual fixed guideways, regardless of how they came about. Second, permit transit agencies to use New Starts and Small Starts grant funds to pay for a portion of new-capacity HOT lanes, based on the projected share of passenger miles of travel that will be generated by bus service on the new-capacity HOT lane.

This change would provide travel options and improve express bus service in the U.S. Very few state DOTs or transit agencies can afford to develop bus-only lanes on freeways, since the vast majority of their capacity would be unused even during peak periods. HOV lanes are frequently over-used, providing little or no time-saving advantage for express-bus service. HOT lanes are a proven way to use all the capacity of a specialized lane, with buses and paying vehicles both benefiting from congestion management via variable pricing. Current FTA policy artificially distinguishes between HOT lanes based on how they came about, thereby discouraging creation of seamless networks that require construction of new lanes. Under the second part of this policy, transit agencies could partner with a toll agency or state DOT to jointly develop new HOT/BRT lanes, sharing in any net toll revenues (after covering capital/debt-service and operating costs) in proportion to the agency’s contribution to the capital costs of the project. Thus, in addition to helping create the network of virtually exclusive bus lanes, the transit agency would receive part of any net toll revenue as an additional ongoing source of revenue.

This change would not cost taxpayers a dime, since it would merely create new options to encourage HOT/BRT lanes and networks. It would give transit agencies and highway agencies a new incentive to work together creating HOT/BRT networks, a highly cost-effective way to increase transit infrastructure.

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