Katy Freeway managed lanes open in a week.

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Ad banners on the Houston Chronicle website are announcing the opening of the Katy Freeway managed lanes.

We’ve known the physical shape of these lanes for some time now: 2 lanes in each direction, with on/off ramps just outside 610, just inside BW, at Dairy Ashford, and at Highway 6, in addition to direct connector ramps at the Northwest Transit Center and Addick Park & Ride. But those lanes have been acting as pure HOV lanes since the rebuilt freeway opened; now they will be opened to single occupant cars and trucks.

The lanes will now be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Outside of rush hours, they’re a toll road: every car, regardless of how many people are in it, pays $1.10 to go the full length of the lanes. During rush hour, in the rush hour direction, single occupant cars pay between $2.00 and $4.00 and 2+ carpools are free. Those rates will need to be adjusted if the lanes are too popular, because HCTRA (who operates the lanes) has promised METRO (who gave up the HOV lane to make room for them) that buses will keep moving at full speed. Single occupant vehicles and carpools will be sorted out by a three-lane toll plaza: left lane for carpools, right two lanes for SOVs.

Managed lanes and congestion pricing make sense. They’re a way to optimize the use of expensive transportation infrastructure. And I agree with Tory’s argument that they can be a real benefit for infrequent users. But now we see how well that works in practice. Across the country, people have shown a distaste for tolls when a free option is available. Toll roads like Beltway 8 that don’t duplicate a freeway do well. Toll roads like the Hardy that do tend not to fill up. And Houston’s first managed lanes are in a corridor that just had a lot of free capacity added.

We may also begin to see problem with the lanes themselves. Nearly all the on- and off-ramps are from the regular lanes. If those lanes get congested, getting to the uncongested managed lanes will be hard for both carpools and buses. Some more direct ramps like those at Addicks and NWTC would have helped. And, with the growth in Katy in the last decade, stopping the lanes at SH6 may turn out shortsighted. Will the Katy lanes be the prototype for the future? Or will they be remembered as a good idea badly implemented? Tell us in the forums.

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