September 10, 2012

DOT considering switching Hartford carpool lanes to tolls

Photo / Pablo Robles
Photo / Pablo Robles
Tolling the 18.8 miles of carpool lanes on I-84 would generate funding for road improvements such as the Hartford viaduct.
Photo / Pablo Robles
The Hartford carpool lanes could become express toll lanes, allowing single occupancy vehicles to bypass congestion on the roadway.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation is studying converting the 38 miles of carpool lanes around Greater Hartford into tolled express lanes.

DOT Commissioner James Redeker said the department is conducting a variable pricing study of a plan allowing any motorists to use the high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes on Interstate 84, I-91, and I-384. The lanes are currently dedicated for use only by high-occupancy vehicles such as motorcycles, buses, and cars with two or more people.

The funding from these express lanes would be used to improve the three separate highways, Redeker said.

The money is especially needed on I-84, where several billion dollars will be needed to replace the Hartford viaduct in the next 15-20 years.

"Having a vision is the only way to get this through anywhere," Redeker said.

DOT received $2.2 million from the federal government in March to study all different types of tolling on I-84 around Hartford and I-95 along the shoreline, including general tolling, dedicated or express toll lanes, tolling during times of peak congestion, and other variable tolling.

The results of the study are expected in October 2013.

The department is not advocating for tolling any of Connecticut's highways but is using the study to understand the various options to relieve congestion and raise funds for highway improvements, said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick.

"Congestion is obviously a problem. It can stymie business growth," Nursick said.

One idea being studied is to convert the HOV lanes around Greater Hartford into high occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes, where high occupancy vehicles don't have to pay the toll. HOT lanes are used in places such as Greater Washington, D.C. and Houston. An alternative is to convert the HOV lanes into express toll lanes, where all vehicles pay the toll.

The region has 37.8 miles of carpool lanes, first opened in 1989.

I-84 has the biggest chunk with 18.8 miles stretching from East River Drive in East Hartford to the underpass beneath Routes 30 and 83 in Vernon.

I-91 has 15.7 miles of carpool lanes starting off Liebert Street in Hartford to 1,800 feet north of the Farmington River in Windsor. I-384 has 3.3 miles of carpool lanes, starting off I-84 in East Hartford to 1,800 feet east of Hillstown Road in Manchester.

A 2010 study by DOT showed the usage of the carpool lanes in Greater Hartford peaked in 2005 and has declined steadily. The average person count in cars using the lanes in 2010 was 2.1 people per vehicle.

"Here you've got existing infrastructure that is free and underutilized," said Eric Brown, associate counsel with the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. "If it is free now, how will charging people increase usage?"

While respecting the need to fund highway infrastructure improvements, the best approach for the Connecticut economy is to keep people and traffic moving as much as possible, Brown said. Leaving large sections of the highways around Hartford unavailable to everyday traffic won't help the cause.

"Strictly in terms of moving people and commerce, I don't know if tolling is the best way to do that," Brown said.

Beyond moving people around Connecticut in the near term, the infrastructure on the interstates needs to be addressed so the roadways can continue moving people over the long-term, Nursick said. Beyond the I-84 viaduct project in Hartford, roads and bridges will cost more and more to maintain and rebuild as the years go on.

"There's no hiding the fact that all the infrastructure is going to be coming to the end of its useful life at about the same time," Nursick said.

A project as expensive as the I-84 viaduct will consume DOT's entire capital project budget for several years, and Connecticut can't afford to focus on just one major project, Nursick said.

Various tolling proposals have popped up in the Connecticut General Assembly for the past several legislative sessions. Legislators discussed ways to relieve congestion, fund roadway projects, and modify driver behavior. One proposal calls for using tolls to extend Route 11 in Salem to I-95.

To help cover the costs of all Connecticut roadway infrastructure, State Rep. Antonio Guerrera (D-Rocky Hill), co-chair of the legislature's Transportation Committee, suggests putting electronic tolling at all major access points into the borders of Connecticut, so motorists entering the state and using its roads help fund its infrastructure.

To use that type of tolling, Connecticut would forfeit its federal transportation funding, but Guerrera said the federal money is diminishing anyway and tolls would be more lucrative.

"If we are truly concerned about fixing roads and bridges, we need to commit to this," Guerrera said. "More and more people are going to be receptive to this."

After the federal transportation funding, Connecticut relies solely on taxes on vehicle fuel to pay for road improvements. As vehicle efficiency mileage improves and gasoline prices soar, people will use gasoline less, and that source of state funding will dry up, Guerrera said.

"Electronic tolling is a way to reduce our gas tax by 50-60 percent," Guerrera said.

With tolls of any kind, Connecticut needs to be cautious, Brown said. The state would need to make sure any toll funding is dedicated to transportation and improvements and not to operational costs.

Connecticut has a history of reappropriating dedicated funding to operational costs, with programs such as the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund and the Underground Storage Tank Fund, said Brown. If the state uses tolls, there must be safeguards to prevent funding from diverting away from transportation improvements.

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