Another reason why Toll Lane Congestion Pricing should be real-time

A surprising study conducted by Michael Janson and David Levinson of the University of Minnesota shows that their state's high occupancy toll lane system attracts more vehicles and free carpoolers whenever tolls are set higher, and that's not factoring in added traffic congestion.

The study includes two years of MnPass Express toll lane data along two freeways. A series of unannounced toll manipulations for non-carpoolers--certainly a questionable motive--was done to collect data and responses from motorists. The MnPass Express Lanes is a toll lane facility that supports free non-transponder 2+ carpooling--a notion we support and advocate; so the the new findings here will be significant for the campaign We want Toll Lanes done right.

Informed individuals know that Economics 101 teaches the basic logic of supply and demand. One would think that if the toll goes up without demand, the number of toll-paying motorists would go down. So without factoring in added traffic congestion, why would increasing the toll for non-carpools cause more motorists to flock into the high occupancy lane?

According to the researchers, if motorists spot high tolls, they will think that the general purpose lanes will be congested ahead, thus will be inclined to take the high occupancy lane. This shows there's a significant group of solo motorists who are willing to tax themselves into a carpool lane. However, without congestion--as lower tolls show, there is little incentive to use the lane as a toll-paying patron.

Have the researchers uncovered a potential toll lane money making scheme here? We don't have enough evidence to make that judgement just yet, but we'll keep a close watch on a possibility as tolls along the 91 Express Lanes and LA's Metro ExpressLanes are often on the high side even when the general purpose lanes are free flowing.

Want an example? Let's check out the 91 Express Lanes on Christmas Eve. Take a look at the picture to the right. On December 24, 2012 at 2:30 PM, the westbound toll for non 3+ carpools was $2.10. The main freeway lanes were nearly at a free-flowing state between Corona and Orange County as shown in the image--unusual for the 91 during a holiday. Motorists had a high level of comfort passing through into Orange County at that time in the regular lanes. The Level-of-Service was right in between an A and B for the freeway. The toll lanes were in a free-flowing state. If tolls for the 91 Express Lanes were based on real-time traffic congestion, the toll for non-carpoolers should have been under $1 based on what other HOT lane systems charge for a 10 mile trip. A $2.10 toll may entice drivers that the freeway has at least some sort of slowing. The two non-HOV 3+ cars pictured above driving under the toll antennas should not have been in a position to buy their way out of non-existent traffic congestion all due to inflated tolls.

As previously mentioned, high occupancy toll lanes should not be about generating revenue. They should be about moving people. The fact of the matter is that there are non-carpoolers who would be willing to pay a price to access a high occupancy express lane to bypass congestion; however, such a motive absolutely should not be exploited by having high tolls during free-flow conditions. This is a clear example of why congestion pricing tolls should be based on real-time traffic congestion and not on a fixed schedule. Artificially manipulating tolls should also be banned and rates should be based on marketplace demands. While its true that having a fixed toll schedule provides predictable rates, posted tolls that do not reflect real-time traffic demands distorts the corridor's traffic flow by luring more toll-paying cars into the high occupancy lane than necessary and vise versa. Many real-time HOT lane systems have a $.25-$.50 minimum during free-flow conditions and $8-$10 maximum during rush hours for non-carpoolers. Motorists should not be "fooled" into thinking a highway is congested when it really isn't by artificially raising the posted toll beyond the market rate.