HOV 2.0

Hillcrofttollroad

I just noted that Houston has now completed 105 miles of HOV lanes.

Here’s the punch line: we aren’t going to build any more.

There was another HOV lane planned, along Westpark from 610 to Beltway 8. This was the corridor where METRO has planned heavy rail in 1983 and monorail in 1991. After Mayor Bob Lanier cancelled the monorail project, Metro asked the Federal Transit Administration to transfer rail funding to an enhanced bus program; among the projects included was the Westpark HOV, which would have been the first free-standing HOV lane in Houston. METRO put the project out to bid in 1997. But then Lee Brown replaced Lanier, and the project was moved to the back burner. In 1999, with METRO’s attention now focused on the Main Street light rail line, half of METRO’s right-of-way was sold to the Harris County Toll Road Authority. The result was the Westpark Tollway, which opened in 2004. (Once again, the best source for all of this is Erik Slotboom’s Houston Freeways.)

The story of Westpark is appropriate because the future of HOVs is now all about toll roads. For over a decade, libertarian think tanks like the Reason Foundation have been pushing the idea of High Occupancy/Toll Lanes (HOT lanes). Now that idea is catching on across the country, and Houston is in the lead. An HOT lane is, depending on how you think of it, an HOV lane that single-occupancy vehicles can pay to use or a toll road that multi-occupant vehicles can use for free. The first Houston HOT (which TXDOT calls Managed Lanes) will be the Katy Freeway’s four center lanes, which replace the Katy Freeway HOV lane. Similarly, the 290 HOV lane will be replaced by an HOT along Hempstead Highway, and 288, which never had an HOV, will be getting an HOT. METRO is already letting double occupancy carpools use the ordinarily 3+ I-10 and 290 HOV lanes for a fee, and plans to let single occupancy vehicles into all existing HOVs for toll.

Toll roads, of course, are nothing new; they’ve been around since the 1700s. And letting multi-occupancy vehicles use toll facilities for free isn’t new, either; it’s been the case on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge since 1971. The new wrinkle, though, is congestion tolling. The idea is the tolls vary by time of day based on demand. Ideally, that the tolls are always set at a level that keeps traffic in the HOT moving at full speed, but with a full load of cars.

Ideally, HOTs can benefit solo drivers, carpoolers and transit riders alike, which is why Houston Strategies’ Tory Gattis is a big fan of them (search for “HOT” on his blog for lots more). But so far Houston’s implementation isn’t living up to that.

The Katy Freeway’s proposed HOT policies will exactly replicate the HOV lane’s policies. The Katy HOV was the only one in Houston that didn’t allow 2-person carpools; 2-person carpools will have to pay a toll. The HOV lane was open rush hour only; carpools will travel free in the HOT only during rush hours. One of the fundamental limitations of the HOV was that it didn’t help people who commuted outbound in the morning; even though the HOT will be di-directional carpools will travel free only in the rush direction.

The Katy’s HOT won’t improve on the HOV’s facilities, either. The direct ramps that currently exist from the HOV to the Northwest Transit Center (PDF schematic, PDF schematic #1) and the Addicks park-and-ride (PDF schematic #2) are being replaced. But no new ones are being added. Buses headed to the Kingsland Park-and-Ride will have to merge across 4 lanes of traffic, and there are no new park-and-rides being built as part of the project.

The bottom line: the Katy HOT may well reduce bus and carpool use. The fact that anyone willing to pay can get the same speed benefits as a carpool, a vanpool, or a bus rider may cause some people to return to driving alone. And if congestion pricing doesn’t work right — if the tolls are set at a level where HOT lane traffic sometimes slows — bus travel times become less reliable. This project is increasing trip quality for solo drivers and either keeping it the same or reducing it for transit users and carpoolers.

290’s HOT is still under design, but it isn’t looking any better than I-10. Currently the 290 HOV has three direct ramps to transit centers; as I noted last year the HOT will have only one. And the same agency that set the restrictive carpool policies on the Katy will be making the rules on 290.

The Westpark Tollway is a prime example of opportunities lost. METRO maintains 3 park-and-ride lots along Westpark. The Tollway would be an excellent way to extend HOV-quality bus service to those lots. But none of the three has direct access to the Tollway (the picture at the top of the post is the Tollway aloofly passing the Hillcroft Transit Center). And this is a corridor where METRO owned the land, and thus had some power.

The HOV lanes were something of a stepchild, unloved by transit advocates and resented by freeway advocates. I fear the same will happen to the HOTs. The people pushing hardest for HOTs – Reason, HCTRA, John Culberson – have not shown any particular interest in transit. For them, the “HO” in “HOT” is a form of political cover that makes toll roads sound transit-friendly. And METRO has not shown any particular interest in optimizing the HOTs, either. METRO paid TXDOT to strengthen bridges on I-10 for future rail. That’s nice, but any rail in that corridor is at least 20 years off and it seems unlikely that HCTRA would give up a toll lane, however strong, for it. Transit users would have gotten a much more immediate and certain benefit from a new Park-and-Ride in Katy with a direct ramp to the HOT. We have an excellent suburban bus system; it is foolish to forget it and dream only of distant tracks.

It is clear that we are at the beginning of a big change in Houston commuter transit. The last 20 years were the HOV era. Now comes the HOT era. The question is whether this is progress.

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Single occupant comments are free all day in our forums. But if you’re unhappy, do something: it’s important to remember that many decisions have not been made, and others can be un-made. HOT policies on the Katy and on the future tollways are set by the Harris County Toll Road Authority, which is run by the Harris County Commissioners, who we elect. While the 290/Hempstead plan is well along, there’s still plenty of time to add direct connectors, especially with some political pressure. TXDOT just set up a field office for 290 where anyone can ask questions and make comments. The 288 plan is still early. And METRO does have significant input on what happens, and they, too, are available for public comment and accountable to elected officials (in particular the mayor of Houston).

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