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.

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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