Paying for Faster Commutes

Many US cities that have tried to reduce highway congestion with special lanes for vehicles with more than one or two people find them underutilized. Now a bolder idea is kicking around: Let car drivers use the special lanes if they pay a price - and the price would go up and down depending on traffic flow. (These HOT lanes - short for "high occupancy toll" roads - could also be used by buses and vanpools.)

Two places in California already use HOT lanes (I-15 north of San Diego, and Route 91 in Orange County), and a closer look at them reveals that users are hardly the wealthy (critics call HOT lanes "Lexus Lanes").

A recent report by the California-based Reason Foundation estimates the cost for setting up HOT lanes in eight major cities. In Houston, a 500-mile system would cost $3.6 billion, while revenues would be more than $228 million a year and could pay for the bonds to build the system.

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HOT lanes don't fully address the problem of reducing traffic congestion overall. They certainly cannot substitute for better regional transportation planning, including additional rail.

But value-pricing a way out of traffic jams holds much appeal. HOT lanes might well cool traffic, and tempers, on the daily commute.

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