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May 7, 2007 | Get ready for express tolls on 95

The Interstate 95 ramp-metering experiment -- long discussed but never implemented -- has been a big disappointment for those motorists who don't relish another horn-honking, lane-jumping, finger-flying South Florida highway spectacle.

State engineers have been talking about installing traffic signals on I-95 on-ramps in Miami-Dade since the early 1990s, when federal transportation dollars started flowing for traffic improvements fueled by technology.

The idea is pretty simple. Traffic trying to enter the interstate is regulated by flashing signals. Monitoring devices in the roadway can regulate the red-to-green frequency depending on congestion. The result: Highways flow better and the number of merging accidents dwindles.

STOPPING: NOVEL IDEA

All of this, of course, works on a premise that might seem foreign to some South Florida drivers: Stopping for red lights is mandatory -- not an optional or whimsical inconvenience.

After initial backlash from skeptical drivers, ramp meters have proved fairly successful in major cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix and Minneapolis.

Despite concerns about the ramp-metering plan from regional politicians and the driving public, Florida Department of Transportation contractors erected the signals on the ramps in 2004.

But they've been kept under wraps (actually, green plastic garbage bags) ever since. The rest of the high-tech system -- fiber-optic cable, in-road electronic detectors, wireless transmitters -- wasn't finished until late last year.

The kick-off date for the Great South Florida Ramp Metering Experiment kept being pushed further and further back with each new delay caused by hurricanes or contractor issues.

VARIABLE TOLLS

Now the DOT is preparing to overhaul the entire layout of I-95 to introduce variably priced toll lanes in the current High Occupancy Vehicle area from I-595 near Fort Lauderdale to I-395 in downtown Miami.

Express transit buses and three-or-more passenger vehicles will be allowed to use the old HOV lanes for free. Everyone else with a SunPass can use the express lanes for a price that will be modified every few minutes depending on traffic.

Under the latest scenario, the DOT hopes to introduce the $86 million "95 Express" concept on northbound I-95 by the end of the year.

All it will take on the northbound side is to restripe the roadway between downtown Miami and the Golden Glades.

The new configuration will be four "free" lanes and two barrier-separated "express" lanes.

HOW MANY LANES?

Planners are still trying to determine if they will need one or two express lanes for the Broward segment.

But ramp metering gets pushed back a little bit longer. The northbound ramp meters will be turned on at the same time the DOT starts charging the variably priced express lane tolls.

"There's no use in deploying them now, " said Rory Santana, who oversees Intelligent Transportation Systems for the Miami-area DOT district.

"We'd get people started, and then just as fast we'd have to take them away so they could reconfigure the road for the managed-lanes program, " Santana said. "Doesn't make much sense, does it?"

The southbound express lanes won't be ready until October 2008 because the highway department needs to modernize one of the 1960s-era bridges that flies over I-95 near the Airport Expressway (State Road 112).

Alice Bravo, who is overseeing the 95 Express plans for the DOT, hopes to introduce the southbound ramp meters at the same time those express lanes open.

GET 'EM IN

"Ramp meters provide the most efficiency when you don't have the road at a stop-and-go condition, " Bravo said. "If we're moving more vehicles through the facility and improving the operation of the general lanes, then it's a good idea to have the ramp meters in place."

And then the real fun will begin.

Got a commuting question or an idea for a future column? Contact Larry Lebowitz at streetwise@MiamiHerald .com or call him at 305-376-3410 or 954-764-7026, ext. 3410.

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