Commuters Hot Over Hot Lanes

By Terri Hall l November 4, 2011

Image via the Washington Post

Get ready to pay a hefty price tag to escape congestion. Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) is in the process of converting 83 miles of HOV lanes into HOT lanes or High Occupancy Toll lanes, where single occupancy vehicles can access the HOV lane, if they pay a toll. It’s a trend taking the country by storm and commuters are none too happy about it. Houston’s HOT lanes will cost solo drivers a premium – up to $10 per trip! The first such lanes will open on I-45 South in January.

Harris County Toll Authority operates Houston’s other HOT lanes on the Katy Freeway (I-10). Very few cars opt to use them and they charge much lower toll rates (ranging from 30 cents to $1.60 in peak hours) than Metro’s rates (between $1 – $10 depending on the time of day and level of traffic using the lanes). No one should have to pay to use the Katy HOT lanes in the first place since they’re 100% paid for with gas tax revenues – that’s why it was called a freeway in the first place.

This grand experiment in government manipulation of motorists’ behavior is an abject failure. For instance, HOT lanes just opened along 15 miles of I-85 in Atlanta charging commuters up $5.40 to access the lanes. They had more traffic use the HOV lanes BEFORE they opened them as HOT lanes than they did with single occupancy vehicles paying a toll, in part because now carpoolers had to have 3 people in the car to use the HOV /HOT lanes for free.

The public outrage was so radioactive that Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal lowered the toll rates from 34 cents a mile down to 11 cents a mile after just the first week in operation! Commuters reported travel times in the free lanes jumping from 40 minutes to 90 minutes. Ultimately, HOT lanes don’t relieve congestion; they manipulate congestion for private corporate profit.

This government social engineering is inefficient and unworkable for most, considering commuters have to navigate across multiple lanes of bumper-to-bumper gridlock (on I-85 it’s 5 lanes) in order to access the toll lanes, then do it all over again when they need to exit. Drivers cannot cross the double white line of the HOT lanes which limits entrance and exit to and from the lanes, except where specifically authorized. So if a motorist can fit into the government-managed box and make it workable, drivers still have to pay anywhere from 10 times to 100 times more per mile than a gas tax funded lane just for the hassle.

In addition, HOT lanes that utilize ‘congestion pricing’ are specifically designed to manipulate or ‘manage’ the level of congestion on the lanes by increasing the price if the government deems too much traffic is using the lane and hence slowing speeds. They use the term ‘pricing’ to try to hide what they’re actually doing which is charging a toll – but they’re not fooling anybody. Ultimately, the goal is to price motorists off certain public roads and to profit from the scarcity of capacity, rather than provide actual mobility for the majority of commuters.

HOT lanes or ‘managed’ lanes, as opposed to freeways, are yet another case of the government picking the winners and losers, primarily based on income level. In this case, the wealthy are the winners; so who’s guilty of fomenting class warfare here? Certainly not the average Joe — it’s the government — and even worse, private corporations who gain a foothold on this power to tax and to manipulate drivers through public private partnership (or P3) contracts.

In an even more provocative move, on I-95 from the border of North Carolina into Virginia, officials plan to slap tolls on existing general purpose free lanes that aren’t currently HOV lanes – they’re presently open to ALL vehicles. Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell got a special waiver from the Obama Administration for the privilege of DOUBLE TAXING its citizens to use what they’ve already paid for. Then from Fredericksburg, Virginia, heading south, motorists will be charged tolls to access the HOV/HOT lanes.

Northern Virginians will soon be hit with HOT lane tolls on the Capital Beltway and more are planned on Interstate 66. It won’t be long before motorists can’t move an inch without big government digging deep into our pockets for the privilege of using our public roads. The same is true in Texas where Governor Rick Perry’s highway department is contemplating over 500 toll projects across the state including the sale of Texas roadways to private entities using P3s, despite significant public opposition. The conversion of HOV lanes into HOT lanes is a price-gouging tax grab, plain and simple.

This government social engineering crept onto our freeways when single occupancy vehicles could access HOV lanes – originally designed to alleviate congestion – if commuters drove GREEN Hybrid cars. NOW, single occupancy vehicles can access the HOV lanes, which have been renamed HOT lanes – if they pay a TOLL.

This type of corporate-government collusion was described by former President Ronald Reagan as “government coercion, political favoritism, collectivist industrial policy, and old-fashioned Federal boondoggles.” Reagan called these public-private partnerships an “assault on limited government and fiscal responsibility with a tactic designed to circumvent the budget process.” At the end of the day, tolling free already-paid-for roads is a way for the politicians to overspend and create more obligations and debt all leveraged on the backs of the taxpayers for generations to come.

Using tolling as a means to manipulate drivers’ behavior is not only statist and abusive government, it’s punitive taxation in the hands of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats, and often times private corporations through P3s, who’ve been granted monopolies by the politicians over our public roadways — our very lifeline for daily living. Implementing this new tolling regime nationwide are Texas Governor Rick Perry, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s idea of congestion relief — all three Republicans. Their brand of so-called conservatism doesn’t square with genuine fiscal responsibility, low taxes, or limited government. It’s high time voters held them to account for what will amount to, all told, the largest tax increase in our lifetimes.

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.