What is the difference between express lanes and toll roads?

Express lanes are special lanes separated from the non-tolled general-purpose lanes; often the boundaries are shown with striping and white plastic delineator sticks. Their purpose is to improve your commute experience by managing congestion. This is accomplished through variable toll pricing, which either encourages or discourages use by increasing the toll when traffic is heavy, and decreasing it when it is light. The idea is to have at least one lane that can “express” the driver to their destination, no matter the time of day.

The primary goal of express lanes is to keep the express lane traffic free-flowing for individual cars or even express transit. This ensures a reliable, non-stop route is available to drivers wishing to bypass congestion for the price of the toll. Public transit buses, registered vanpools and emergency vehicles travel these lanes toll-free.

Toll roads, unlike express lanes, are not just designed to manage congestion. Tolls are a way to pay for the road, while adding new capacity. What traditional toll roads and express lanes have in common is choice – drivers can choose to travel the express lanes for the posted toll price, or use the general-purpose lanes.

Aren’t express lanes just for people who can afford to pay for them?

No. Express lanes benefit all lanes. Numerous studies show that people of all income levels use them, approve of them and agree they reduce congestion. Tolling provides travelers with a choice. Studies have shown that lower-income individuals face the greatest financial harm when they do not have access to options that can get them to their everyday destinations. Lack of choice can result in lost wages, late fees for day care or decisions that restrict a person’s quality of life that could have been avoided if they had the option to bypass congestion. To name a few studies:

  • According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a wide range of income groups use the value priced lanes at different levels of frequency. Research from San Jose State University and the University of California, Berkeley shows that low-income drivers use express lanes and are equally as likely to approve of the lanes as high income drivers.
  • Studies of express lanes in California have shown that, at any given time, about one-quarter of the vehicles in toll lanes belong to high-income individuals. The remainder belong to low- and middle-income drivers.
  • Based on research conducted in California, certain pricing schemes do not necessarily disadvantage low-income drivers. Over half of commuters with household incomes under $25,000 a year approved of providing toll lanes.
  • A study of Atlanta’s I-85 express lanes conducted by the Southern Environmental Law Center concluded drivers of all income groups share similar opinions of express lanes, enroll in the tolling programs at comparable rates, and on occasion, use the lanes (A Better Inland Empire, 1).
  • According to the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority, use of the I-85 express lanes is determined more by location than by income level. (A Better Inland Empire, 2). Click here for more.
What is the MoPac Improvement Project/MoPac Express Lane?

The MoPac Improvement Project is currently open to traffic and features one Express Lane in each direction on north MoPac from Cesar Chavez to Parmer Lane.

These special lanes are separated from the three existing non-tolled lanes by striping and white plastic sticks. They provide a reliable, non-stop, toll-free route for public transit buses, registered van pools and emergency vehicles. To help keep the express lanes from becoming congested, individual drivers pay a variable toll that increases when traffic is heavy and decreases when it is light. The primary goal is not to generate revenue, but to keep the express lane traffic free-flowing as much as possible.

Express Lanes are not intended for everyday use. They are designed to be there when you really need them. They will hopefully also encourage people to carpool because they have the option to split the cost of the trip among each occupant in the vehicle. Because their capacity will be limited, individual drivers will have to decide whether any particular trip is worth the toll being charged at the time they wish to use the express lane.

How does the MoPac Express Lanes work?

Individual drivers are only able to enter or exit the MoPac Express Lanes at designated locations in order to maximize safety and efficiency. However, emergency vehicles are able to drive over the flexible sticks and access the lanes to remove disabled vehicles anywhere along the 11-mile route. There are three entry and exit points. Electronic signs indicate the toll rate before each entry point.

  • North, near Parmer Lane
  • Central, between Far West Boulevard and RM 2222
  • South, at Cesar Chavez and 5th Streets
How does variable toll pricing work?

To ensure the MoPac Express Lanes remain free-flowing, variable tolls are used to manage the number of vehicles entering the lanes at any given time. When traffic is heavy and demand for the Express Lanes is high, toll rates increase. When demand is low, toll rates go down. Changeable electronic signs display current rates in real time, so drivers know the price before deciding whether to enter the lanes.

Once you are in the lanes, the price you saw on the signs is the price you are guaranteed to pay. Drivers entering after you or at different locations may pay a different rate. Initial toll rates are $0.50 per segment and $1.00 for a full length trip, but can be higher if demand is greater than projected. Tolls paid by users are the source of money to repay the funds used to finance the project, including the sound walls and bicycle/pedestrian improvements.

How is MoPac Express Lane pricing determined?

The objective is to maintain free-flowing traffic in the Express Lane (speeds greater than 45 MPH) at all times, so rates are adjusted to encourage or discourage users, based on current conditions. Rates are determined by on the number of vehicles in the lane, the speed of the vehicles and the rate of change-of-traffic conditions.

How does the MoPac Express Lane improve public transit?

Until now, express buses and vanpools had to sit in traffic with all other vehicles on MoPac, but with the completion of the Express Lane, these transit vehicles are now able to bypass congestion and get to their destination reliably and on time. The express lane provides an opportunity for expanded Capital Metro Express Bus service and an incentive for greater participation in Capital Metro’s Ride Share vanpool program.

Do I have to use Express Lanes?

Individual drivers looking to bypass congestion may use the Express Lanes. Drivers who prefer not to pay a toll will always have the option of using the non-tolled general-purpose lanes. In accordance with state law, any non-tolled capacity must be preserved. In other words, if you’re driving on it toll-free today, you’ll be able to drive on it toll-free tomorrow.

How do we know the MoPac express lanes will be effective?

Because express lanes have been effective in other states. A good example is Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation:

  • Minnesota’s MnPASS Express Lanes can move twice as many people as a single general-purpose lane during peak times.
  • Average speeds in the express lanes are between 55 and 60 MPH during peak periods.
  • Average speeds in the general purpose lanes are 15 to 20 MPH during peak periods.
  • Customer satisfaction is greater than 80 percent. Commuters value time savings, congestion avoidance, choice and reliability.
  • Transit operators and users strongly support express lanes, as do car/vanpoolers.

For more information, click here.

Where else are express lanes being used in the country?

Express lanes are being used successfully in many other parts of the country, including here in Texas. Read about various case by clicking on the links below to learn about other Express Lane projects that have been implemented around the United States.

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