Public Policy Forum Blog

Does our congestion warrant HOT lanes?

The recently initiated debate regarding pay-only express lanes (also known as high-occupancy toll, or HOT lanes) on Wisconsin highways mirrors the discussion in other jurisdictions that have pursued such lanes.

On the one hand, local opponents, like those in Arlington, Virginia, say "Lexus lanes" only will serve wealthy commuters and their construction creates the same pollution and sprawl impacts as regular highway expansion. On the other, local proponents, similar to those in California, point to the popularity of HOT lanes among both wealthy and low-income citizens, as well as their success in reducing congestion and financing highway improvements without resorting to broad-based taxes or fees.

While sorting out the pros and cons is difficult and subjective, there appears to be one overlooked question in the early discussion about using HOT lanes here: is our traffic congestion severe enough to merit use of such lanes, the success of which requires drivers to agree to pay considerably more to reduce their travel times?

The Federal Highway Administration, which generally has been supportive of HOT lanes, states that a "requisite" for their effective deployment is a "high density corridor typical of a larger metropolitan area with limited travel options and a lack of parallel highway routes." The Brookings Institution similarly states that "HOT lanes work best on roads where there is heavy traffic and long delays during peak hours. Without such congestion, drivers would have little incentive to pay significant tolls."

If HOT lanes are considered for southeast Wisconsin, the congested corridors that might logically be considered include I-94 between Downtown and the Illinois border; I-94 between Downtown and Waukesha County; and I-43 between Downtown and Ozaukee County. But is peak period traffic congestion in those corridors severe and prolonged enough to convince frugal Wisconsinites to pay several additional dollars per day to use new HOT lanes, assuming they could be financially, environmentally and physically accommodated?

It is impossible to know the answer to that question without rigorous analysis by highway planners and engineers. One clue, however, may come from the Texas Transportation Institute's (TTI) latest Urban Mobility Report.

According to that report (as discussed in this July 2009 blog post), congestion in Metro Milwaukee has not grown since the 1990s. Examination of the report also reveals that each of the large urban areas that has implemented HOT lanes - Orange County (CA), San Diego, Houston, Denver and Minneapolis - ranks among the top 25 in terms of highway traveler delays, while Milwaukee ranks 67th.

An updated TTI report on traffic congestion levels is scheduled to be released in the near future. It will be interesting to see whether the new report provides additional clues regarding the efficacy of HOT lanes in Milwaukee.

Rob Henken