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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — If you use the Express lanes on I-95, prepare to pay way more. The same could go for parking your car in Downtown Miami. The trend called congestive pricing is taking off.
Whether you’ve heard about it or even understand it, you may soon end up paying twice, even three times, what you pay not to drive in Miami-Dade and Broward County. This report looks into why the price is going up and whether this could be the wave of the future or highway robbery.
As the evening commute on I-95 starts to build, traffic slows down to a crawl. 95 Express lanes, a fast lane for drivers willing to pay for it, starts to slow down as well. Across town, in Doral, Florida’s Department of Transportation engineers are watching it all. A mega wall of screens shows cameras from the Florida Keys up to Broward County. The bird’s eye view of traffic shows engineers what’s happening in real time. Suddenly music comes over a speaker. The tune, the Superman theme, is an alert that the toll on 95 Express needs to change. The automated system is built to try and keep traffic moving.
How do you keep cars moving? Use money as a motivator. The system counts how many cars are using the express lanes at any given moment. If there are too many cars the toll climbs up, hopefully discouraging drivers from entering the lanes. If the lanes are empty, the price goes down. The program calculates how much the toll should go up or down and for how long. While the system could do the entire change itself, an engineer still must click a button to approve the change just in case something whacky happens. Once the change is approved, within seconds the tolls go up. The engineer looks over to a row of screens to make sure everything went smoothly. The cameras trained on all the 95 Express signs show the change in tolls has taken place.
As the toll goes up, your commute time is supposed to go down. The concept is the higher tolls will discourage drivers from using the lanes, thus opening them up for cars to move. If you are a fan of the lanes you love what FDOT engineer Rory Santana has done. It’s estimated nearly two million drivers use his speedy lanes every month. If you are in the free “slower” lanes though you probably feel cheated. Santana has heard plenty from those drivers.
When asked about it Santana called it a “win-win.” “There is no loser. That’s the bottom line. On the other hand if we hadn’t done this, what time is it?” Santana looks over at a screen broadcasting a line of cars. “5 o’clock right now?” He points to the video trained on express lanes. “They would be into the teens in the HOV lanes and in the general purpose lanes.” Santana said. He’s referring to what used to be there before express lanes. High occupancy vehicle lanes were mostly for car pools and buses. They were notoriously empty, while the rest of the lanes crawled. He points at the express lane and proclaims proudly, “Right now they are in the 40’s.” “That’s a win?” I ask him. “That’s a win. Take away how much and who, that’s a win,” he said.
HIGHEST EXPRESS LANE TOLLS
What FDOT has done is actually quite remarkable when you think about it. They took an un-tolled road and put a toll on it. Not only that, they charged the highest tolls ever seen in South Florida. Even Santana admits he was scared to do it. “It was scary. There was knowing, I was going to have to be the one to open this up and I’m sure the eyes of South Florida were going to be one me,” Santana said. Except for some minor hiccups, it worked. Until one day, it didn’t.
He remembers that Fall day, watching the toll climb to their max rate. “People just didn’t care about the $7.20. They were going to get through that facility to get to the stadium.” Fans headed to see the Miami Dolphins game considered the $7 dollar toll cheap. Only the $7 dollar fares didn’t get them there any faster though, because everyone had crammed into the lane. A few weeks later it happened again and again. They started hitting the max rate regularly. “It was something like 8 times the first year. Then it just went like 32 and then 64 and then it went exponentially.” People were willing to pay whatever it was. “Whatever it was.” Santana confirmed.
Last year FDOT took action getting the maximum toll raised to $10.50. Only it didn’t work either. “When we got to $10.50 we would have to sit there for a while,” Santana said.
At $10.50, the 95 Express toll is one of the highest, if not the highest in the country. Santana is in disbelief. Here he was worried about tolling a toll-free road and whether people would use it. Could he ever imagine that somebody was going to be willing, not somebody, a lot of people were going to be willing to pay over $10 to use it?” Santana said, “I could not. I could not.” Perhaps the high tolls were meant to discourage drivers from using the express lanes but in South Florida, the higher they go, the more drivers use it.
This Spring phase 2 of 95 Express will open which will extend the lanes all the way to Fort Lauderdale.
When they open, be prepared for sticker shock. Santana explained “Once it goes up we technically don’t have a cap.” No cap means the more cars in the lanes, the higher the toll will climb indefinitely. Most drivers would balk at the idea of a tolls with no maximum. Santana agreed. “Yes it is scary. For us too. It is scary. But technically that is what it is. There will be no cap.”
When pressed on the issue of whether someone could pay $20, $30, $40 dollars Santana nodded in agreement. “They could,” he said. “For a trip to Fort Lauderdale?” he was asked. He answered, “It’s foreseeable. You could see $20 bucks. It’s a 22 mile trip. Not um, out of the realm of possibilities,” he said.
Many drivers told CBS4’S David Sutta they would never pay so much to commute around town. Carlos Garcia actually had a name for it. “I call it desperation pricing.” Garcia said. Garcia runs a grassroots effort against tolls. His website rollbacktolls.com highlights all the rate hikes, proposals, and missteps transportation authorities have taken in recent years.
When asked about the effect of the 95 Express super tolls he explained the higher the prices go, the bigger the divide will be. “This is becoming a division of classes. Those who can pay and those that cannot pay. Sometimes they’ve been referred to as Lexus lanes. As the prices increases I think we are shifting from Lexus lanes to Lamborghini lanes because that’s what you are going to need to drive to be able to afford access to one of these express lanes.” Garcia said. David asked him, “At the end of the day is there anything that can be done to keep these tolls from going up to $20, $30, $40?” Garcia answered, “Well the one choice we have is don’t take the toll roads.” Garcia explained we had an opportunity for public comment. But it didn’t matter. They were going to do what they were going to do according to him.
CONGESTIVE PARKING PRICING
95 Express is an example of a fairly old concept called surge pricing or congestive pricing. A perfect example of it would be an airline ticket. If you buy an airline ticket during peak travel time you’ll pay a premium for it. That same idea is now being applied to highways. If you travel during a peak time in an express lane you’ll pay more for it. The concept is now being proposed for parking. Miami Parking Authority’s Art Noriega explained they are in the same predicament 95 was in.
“We can only build so many highways. We can only make the roads so wide. We can only build so much parking,” Noriega said.
The Miami Parking Authority is just about done with a study on congestive pricing for parking spaces. Essentially street parking and garages would have prices slide up and down based on demand.
Noriega made his argument to us for the idea. “The more cars you push into your downtown core the more congested your traffic gets, your streets get. You get people circling around trying to find spots. They add to that congestion and so for us it’s a means of trying to alleviate some of that traffic.”
Noriega believes if it’s too expensive to park, you’ll park further away, or take a bus in, or come during off peak hours. We asked if he has any idea how much drivers would be paying. “No. At this point it’s still too early to make any assumptions there,” he responded. But you can assume in desirable areas, especially during peak times, it will likely be more than what you’re paying now. For those who think this is money grab, Noriega shrugged and said, “Yeah, it isn’t a money grab. This is a means of traffic, alleviating some of the traffic issues. And you can push the prices higher and lower so its balances it out a little bit.”
Congestive pricing does have the ability to go down as well. You could encourage drivers to park in underutilized areas by lowering parking rates in those areas below current market levels. So far that hasn’t really been seen though in West Coast cities experimenting with it.
WAVE OF THE FUTURE OR HIGHWAY ROBBERY?
Miami hasn’t decided when they’ll roll out their congestive pricing. However Noriega believes it’s a likely reality to a growing issue. Meanwhile, Santana predicts the future depends on congestive pricing.
“You’re asking if it’s going to happen. It’s gotta happen. There is just no way. We are going so quickly,” Santana explained.
Is it possible that you could see congestive pricing on Kendall Drive? On US-1? On the way to Miami Beach? “It’s possible and there are people looking at that model in the future,” Santana said.
If express lanes are the way of the future, drivers like Garcia will be stuck with the bill. He argues your commute time shouldn’t be auctioned to the highest bidder. “Our local, state and federal authorities should not be in the business of whatever the market will bear, to be quite frank,” Garcia said.
You’re probably wondering where is all this express lane money going? The answer: More express lanes.
After funding the cameras, extra staff, extra road rangers for 95 Express, the excess money is helping establish the express lanes on the Palmetto expressway and I-75. The reason why more express lanes are on the way? FDOT says the work. Not just for those who are paying but those in the “free” lanes. According to FDOT, since 95 Express has rolled out they have seen both the express and general lanes are moving faster. It may be hard to imagine that when you’re sitting there watching cars whiz by you. Traffic engineers are quite proud of it. According to them everyone is moving faster than they were, say, a decade ago.
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