HOT or Not: DART Board Mixed on Proposal to Turn Some HOV Lanes Into Toll Roads

Some time after 6:30 this evening, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board will approve the $1,256,451,080 FY2011 budget and the Twenty-Year Financial Plan prompted by the sales-tax shortfall -- "

The Lost Decade

," for those with short-term memory loss. But let's dig deeper into the DART meeting agenda for today -- like, oh, that part where the Planning Committee talks, at least conceptually, about turning some High Occupancy Vehicle lanes along stretches of Interstate 35 and LBJ Freeway into High Occupancy Toll lanes.

By now, no doubt, you're well aware that the new-and-improved LBJ, groundbreaking on which is set for early next year, will have 13.3 miles worth of managed lanes available to drivers looking to take the fast lane. Right now, it's expected those lanes will run around 15 cents to 55 cents per mile per car, depending upon how congested LBJ is at the time. But DART staff is also considering going the HOT lane route along IH-35 going south off US Highway 67, and IH-635 East between Highway 75 and Interstate 30, according to DART docs (which I'd download before trying to read).

The Planning Committee tonight will approve contributing $60,083,049 to the new LBJ project, payable in 60 installments, and staff wonders if maybe it shouldn't look to generate a little extra revenue by getting HOT and bothered elsewhere. But minutes from the committee's meeting earlier this month suggest there are plenty of questions left unanswered. From the meeting, this riveting read:

Ms. Wilkins asked if DART will be adding additional lanes or use existing lanes; is this DART's only option as far as generating revenue; and how will excess revenue be shared? Mr. Olyai responded that existing HOV lanes would be converted to HOT lanes. Staff is proposing two (2) projects; Interstate Highway 35 East going south off US Highway 67, and Interstate Highway 635 East between Highway 75 and Interstate 30. Mr. Olyai explained that all operating, maintenance, and any other costs will be repaid by revenue first; any additional remaining revenue will be shared by investors as to the percentage of their contributions.

Ms. Ellerbe asked how the distinction will be made to determine if there is 1, 2, or 3 riders in a vehicle, and does an enforcement officer have the ability to notify the gentry to charge those who break the rules? Mr. Olyai responded that currently, two options exist; issue a toll tag registered to the vehicle, not a person; or issue a license plate with a cover that pulls down when a second person is in the vehicle.

A police officer with a reader is able to check the status of a tag that is issued, and a citation is automatic, the procedure currently being used by North Texas Transportation Authority (NTIA).Mr. Tsao stated that based on his knowledge, and after conversations with COG staff, the only reliable technology to sensor how many riders are in a vehicle is performed by weight, temperature, and heart beat. Further, Mr. Tsao said he believes people will be angry with a $.75 charge per mile, and recommends the fee be based on condition, not mileage.

Mr. Chrisman commented that the toll tag technology would need further study, and further suggested the frustration with a system that could not distinguish between 1, 2, or 3 riders, creating the possibilities for false violations occurring that would require difficult or unattainable proof to get the violations and charges reversed.

Mr. Danish reiterated that in the next twenty (20) years, 90M people will be moving to the North Texas area because there was a vision to put in a DART system 28 years ago. Further, Mr. Danish said he believes the rest of the state is wrestling with $80M per mile, the cost to build light rail today. When you wait too long, as other parts of the state have done, they may never have the option for light rail. Ending, Mr. Danish said he is "for" the program.

Mr. Carrizales said he is interested in pursuing the idea further and would be open minded about it. However, he does not believe the Board is at a point where they can approve this item based on the discussion and what he is hearing. Further, he expressed concern that DART will be rewarding people who are otherwise not concerned about the environment, or the move of going green.

Ms. Ellerbe stated she does not oppose the concept of HOT lanes, but believes a better method must be sought for the logistics.

Mr. Chrisman said he opposed the idea, stating that he believes the HOV should be left up to DART, while the HOT lanes and toll roads should be left to NITA and TXDot. Mr. Chrisman continued that he believes DART's purpose is to move more people, or get them on other forms of transit, that in theory if the highway completely shuts down, that pushes more people DART's way. Ending, Mr. Chrisman said he believes he would be contributing to the problem by becoming a quasi-highway/toll road person.

Ms. Wilkins expressed that she is against this project, that as a taxpayer, she and others have already paid for freeways to be built with tax dollars and does not agree to an expansion program that requires people to pay even more, especially looking at the condition of the current HOV lanes that are not in ideal condition. Mr. Velasco stated he would like to see what other options are available. Mr. Tsao said he is for the idea, but with a condition based on a sustainable system.

Mr. Whitaker said he is neither for nor against the project, but would like to find out what the market place DART is trying to get revenue from; is it the current market with the residents, or people traveling through to get from California to Atlanta? Concurring with Mr. Chrisman, he asked, " Is DART in the HOV business or transportation business that transports people in our metroplex?"

Mr. Williams stated he is against the program, that he has a philosophical issue with what is the core principle of a public transit agency, and believes we should be moving people, otherwise we are encouraging them to use their own automobiles.

I asked DART spokesman Morgan Lyons this morning where the proposal sits now. He said: "As we talked to TxDOT and COG [the North Central Texas Council of Governments, they had a lot of the same questions." Lyons said staff is expected to present some of its answers to the board at the end of October.

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