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The road less travelled

Atkins | 01 Oct 2013 | Comments

For a nation that loves its cars, the open road is more than just a romantic notion: it’s part of the lifeblood of the country. But as the population of the larger cities in the United States tops 100 million people, those roads are starting to look increasingly crowded. What’s being done to take the pressure off?

In 2012, the average American driver spent 38 hours sitting in traffic.

“That’s 38 hours I could have spent with my wife or children or doing something else I would rather be doing,” says Pat Jones, executive director and chief executive of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA).

This sentiment reflects America’s shifting love affair with the car. The unfettered movement it affords has been a central narrative in the nation’s development, but that is changing fast.

The 10 most congested cities in the US – including Boston, New York, Seattle, Washington DC and Los Angeles (LA) – are home to almost 100 million people. In these and other major urban areas, the number of cars on the road now exceeds the transit system’s capacity, creating congestion and everything that goes along with it: cities become slower and dirtier; drivers sit frustrated in traffic jams; uncertain travel times play havoc with efficiency; fuel is wasted.

The American Society of Civil Engineering’s 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure puts the cost of congestion on 42 per cent of US highways at an estimated $101bn in wasted time and fuel annually.

This problem is preoccupying a generation of planners, builders and engineers in the US and around the world. Public transport can alleviate some of the worst effects, but ongoing financial constraints stand in the way of the $170bn capital investment that the Federal Highway Administration believes is needed in US roads each year to relieve the situation. As long as the US remains a nation in love with its cars, then the answer lies in adapting the existing road networks.

For cities meeting this challenge, that means toll roads and managed lanes.

Managed movement

Given that federal law prohibits the tolling of existing interstate highway lanes, many states have been facing up to increasingly congested cities with no sign of significant federal financial assistance to tackle the problem.

But the Federal Highway Administration’s ‘Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century’ Act (MAP-21), which came into effect last year, has given them greater freedom to go ahead with tolling new interstates and added lanes on existing ones, as well as tolling on existing roads when required for reconstruction and renovation purposes.

“Various states are exploring whether they can add capacity to the roads but within a managed toll lane,” says Jorge Figueredo, national tolls business sector manager at Atkins North America. “This gives them a new source of revenue to at least maintain or operate that lane or those lanes, versus having to rely on old funding sources to maintain existing infrastructure.”

Managed lanes projects are being implemented across the US, combining traffic management, tolling, transit and carpooling in a multipurpose roadway. Atkins has been involved in the majority of these projects, as this map demonstrates.
Managed lanes projects are being implemented across the US, combining traffic management, tolling, transit and carpooling in a multipurpose roadway. Atkins has been involved in the majority of these projects, as this map demonstrates.

As a result, 10 US cities have begun managing their congestion with tolled lanes in the past few years. Both Miami and LA have embraced managed lanes, while San Francisco, New York and Dallas are following close behind. No two schemes are completely alike in mode or scale, but all share the objective of reducing congestion, increasing reliability of roads and offering drivers more choice in their mode of travel.

“In some instances, roadways are taking an existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane and selling excess capacity to single-occupant vehicles or less-than-HOV vehicles,” explains IBTTA’s Jones. “Then you have examples like Interstate 495 in northern Virginia where they added two express lanes in each direction over a 14-mile route between the Springfield Interchange and the Dulles Toll Road, creating new capacity. They have been successful in attracting traffic, which, along with revenues, has grown significantly since they opened in November 2012. I think this is a model we’ll see increasingly often in urban areas that have the space to add lanes.”

From Atlanta to Miami

For Christopher Tomlinson, executive director at the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA), the congestion afflicting the state’s biggest city became urgent six years ago.

“We have been facing up to the high level of urban congestion in the metro Atlanta area,” he explains. “Simply put, we couldn’t build our way out of our congestion problem – we don’t have the real estate or the finances to fully expand our highway system within the metro area.”

Given those restrictions, the Georgia Department of Transportation set up a managed lanes system in conjunction with SRTA, with Atkins as its general engineering consultant. By taking a comprehensive look at the entire Atlanta area, they wanted to determine where planners could add a small amount of extra capacity – one or two lanes at most – and then manage the lanes through tolls.

“The theory is that, if we introduce general purpose lanes, eventually they would fill up, because we’re still a growing area,” Tomlinson says. “We have to deliver additional capacity but manage the congestion to give people a choice of lanes that will give them a reliable travel time and allow them to get to their destination, but at a price.”

The Atlanta network uses a transponder system that tracks cars using the price-managed lanes, charging users a floating fee. “Everyone has to register a pre-paid toll account, but the pricing for all these projects is set to fluctuate up and down depending on the usage levels and level of traffic congestion,” says Tomlinson.

So far, so good: the dynamic pricing model has been implemented and Tomlinson reports that demand continues to grow – “We’re still sending out 1,300 new Peach Pass transponders every week without any extra marketing or promotion.”

Use of the express lanes has exceeded expectations. In the first month of operation (October 2011), the lanes saw an average of 7,000 trips per day on the 16-mile long facility. As of summer 2013, the lanes are averaging 19,000 trips per day.

Rory Santana, District Six Intelligent Transportation Systems manager at the Florida Department of Transportation’s Sunguide Transportation Management Center in Miami reports similar success with Florida’s managed lanes project.

“We seem to be ahead of the curve on revenues and volumes – as of May 2013, we have had 75 million vehicles come through.”

Central to Florida’s success has been the simple fact that managed lanes have been presented as adding to existing capacity, and not restricting driver choice. “There were four free lanes and they remain, along with two express lanes. Drivers haven’t lost anything,” explains Santana, “and that’s made it an easier sell. We ensure users realise that paying tolls to use the express lanes is a choice, alongside using the general purpose lanes, car pooling or leaving their car at home and riding the bus.”

Getting there is half the fun

Central to the Peach Pass’s success has been its ease of use. Drivers are clearly embracing the design of the lane, how it fits into the existing road network and the payment system. This isn’t surprising, says IBTTA’s Jones, who explains these schemes are a long way from the traditional “cash at the booth” model that discouraged many drivers from using toll roads in the past.

“First we moved from hard fixed booths and barriers to electronic. You still had barriers but at least you didn’t have to fish for coins or dollars,” he explains. “Gates and barriers were then removed so that people could drive through, but this was still limited – maybe 15 miles per hour. Then open-road tolling eliminated the barriers entirely on the main line, though you might have a ramp off to one side where people can still pay in cash. The last phase is all-electronic tolling where you completely remove cash collection from the roadway entirely.”

In Georgia, the last toll facility that accepts cash will cease operation in November 2013.

And as SRTA works on the Northwest Corridor, Georgia’s first public-private partnership (P3) project, Atkins has also been engaged in developing signage solutions for managed lanes, to help motorists make the decision on whether they want to travel to Atlanta on the separate toll lanes or the general purpose lanes. “In order for motorists to make an informed decision, the strategic location of toll rate information is critical. Atkins’ forward thinking on the placement of signage has gone beyond basic engineering into the behavioural realm,” says Tomlinson. “That’s about understanding where people make decisions: where do they need to be told about how the systems work? From working with Atkins, it’s clear that a lot of this is an art, not a science. Atkins helped us look at it from a customer-centric view in making these decisions.”

Paying the toll

As with all major infrastructure projects, there is one critical factor that cities must address: cost. In Georgia, the lanes are in competition with the non-toll or general purpose lanes, which makes it difficult to bond finance 100 per cent of the construction cost, because potential users have an option that doesn’t require a toll.

There are ways in which planners can design cost-neutral projects, with toll income carrying the operating and maintenance cost of the project. One of Georgia’s next projects, for example, is going to cost nearly $1bn, of which approximately $536m is coming from the state’s transportation budget, the traditional funding source. The rest comes from loans and other financing, to be paid back with toll revenue.

“We’re getting a $1bn asset and we’re only paying half that cost thanks to the toll revenue supporting the repayments,” Tomlinson explains.

If the cost barriers can be surmounted, driver acceptance levels are sky high and technology exists to make the use of toll roads a seamless and stress-free experience, where are the limits for managed lanes?

“Whether you have a 600-mile managed lane network in the Bay Area of San Francisco or a handful of miles of managed lanes in the Washington DC area, I think each region is going to decide its own fate,” says Jones. “Clearly we are seeing a movement towards charging people based on their road usage as opposed to charging a per-gallon fee.”

Figueredo agrees that managed lanes will continue to grow and believes Atkins is ideally placed to build on its work across the US to tackle the next two major challenges in the growth of tolling: connectivity and interoperability.

“The most exciting project on the boards now is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) express lane network in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they’ll need to include over 90 miles of express lanes – by far the biggest express lane system in the US – and that’s going to connect a lot of different roadways.

“The other obstacle is interoperability, which would allow somebody with a transponder driving from New York to California to access managed lanes in both states accordingly. Right now you can’t, but we’re working on it.”

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