Saturday, April 03, 2004

HOT Lanes

Dan Klein and Gordon Fielding came up with the HOT-lane idea more than ten years ago. Introduce much needed time-of-day pricing on U.S. highways by converting underused HOV lanes; make access available to anyone willing to trade cash for time; make it a variable toll sensitive to regular changes in demand; even raise highway money this way. Bob Poole, Ken Orski and many others have been working hard to promote the HOT-lane idea since then. There are even a few in existence in the U.S. Southern California has two, a segment of the SR-91 in Orange county and another segment of the I-15 in San Diego county.

Yet, progress has been slow. The current federal transportation reauthorization bill is full of political pork favorites (3000 election-year hand-outs according to the WSJ). Politicians prefer to build rather than manage capacity because that is where the money is. They love rail transit, even though hugely wasteful (30 years of documentation notwithstanding), because, unlike highways, this is where they get points from builders AND from from Greens.

Why, then, be optimistic about pricing? Because good ideas do have a slow inevitability. The few U.S. HOT-lane demos and now London's pricing success have slowly moved the idea into the mainstream. Perhaps the biggest push has come from London where it has been promoted by the City's Mayor, "Red Ken" Livingston. Just as it takes a Nixon to go to China, a Rabin to shake hands with Arafat (not a great idea but a show of great courage), it takes a card-carrying Socialist to give us a serious road-pricing clinic.

City-center pricing as in London is not useful in the U.S. where few go to the traditional centers. Rather, HOT-lanes are the way to go. The next logical step is to have them over an entire metro area's highway system, not simply on an isolated link here and there. The results would be dramatic and eye-opening, just as in London.