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March 24, 2007 | Fast lane may cut commute, for a price

State road planners are fast-tracking an idea that would radically alter Interstate 95 between Fort Lauderdale and downtown Miami by adding high-tech express lanes for buses, carpoolers and single drivers willing to pay an electronic toll.

Still in its formative stages, the "95 Express" plan calls for replacing the politically unpopular and poorly enforced HOV lanes with limited-access express lanes that would run from Interstate 595 in Broward to Interstate 395 in Miami-Dade by 2009.

Transit buses and preregistered carpools with three or more occupants will be allowed to use the special, barrier-protected lanes for free. Applying supply-and-demand straight out of Economics 101, access would also be "sold" to anyone with a SunPass willing to pay a varying toll.

"This is all about trying to find a creative way to manage the congestion and to do something to provide real mass transit, " said Alice Bravo, director of transportation systems development at the Florida Department of Transportation in Miami.

The highway would look vastly different -- and a little claustrophobic -- in Miami-Dade, where planners want to restripe the current 10-lane configuration between downtown and the Golden Glades interchange.

TIGHT SQUEEZE

The plan would squeeze out two more lanes by reducing most of them from 12 to 11 feet and cutting into the center median and shoulders.

The new configuration would be four regular and two express lanes in each direction in Miami-Dade. The only lane that would remain 12 feet wide is the outside one, which trucks would be urged to use.

State planners say the new lane configuration and narrower breakdown areas might seem more hazardous for drivers with disabled vehicles, but they will still meet federal safety standards.

Orange plastic and rubber poles would be erected to separate the regular lanes from the express area. Access would be limited to five entry/exit points along the corridor: Interstate 195, between Northwest 103rd and 119th streets, Golden Glades, between Ives Dairy Road and Hallandale Beach Boulevard and Interstate 595.

I-95 is less constrained by space and congestion in Broward, so it would probably require less construction to convert to the express lane concept, said Paul Lampley, an FDOT project development engineer in Broward.

FDOT is waiting for the results of a traffic and toll forecasting study before it decides whether Broward will work better with express lanes that are one or two lanes wide in each direction, Lampley said.

Under the plan, the state would guarantee at least a 50-mph ride in the express lanes regardless of the congestion in the nontolled ones. When traffic is light, the toll would be low; as more cars opt to use the express lanes, the price would rise. High-tech sensors and cameras would keep tabs on traffic volume.

In a similar value-pricing system on Interstate 15 near San Diego, express lane tolls are adjusted every six minutes during rush hour.

Matthew Click, a transportation planner and policy analyst for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, offered this hypothetical:

Southbound morning commuters would encounter electronic signs as they approach the Golden Glades. The trip to downtown Miami might take an hour in the "free" lanes; drivers willing to pay a $3 SunPass toll would be guaranteed a 25-minute trip in the express lanes.

Enforcement using roving police patrols and cameras snapping the license plates of lane violators will be critical to the project's success, Click said.

FROM HOV TO HOT

The South Florida plan is part of a growing national trend where urban areas are converting underused High Occupancy Vehicle or HOV lanes into HOT (High Occupancy Toll) facilities.

Critics fret that value-pricing will create an exclusive class of "Lexus lanes" catering only to the wealthy.

But customer surveys in Southern California have shown that drivers of both sexes and across all race and income levels prefer the value-lane option. Drivers said they would rather have the option of occasionally paying to use a free-flowing express lane than spending the same money to build more regular lanes that would immediately become gridlocked.

Over the long haul, the biggest winners could be the bus-riding public.

Today, express buses don't gain much of an advantage in the I-95 HOV lanes, which usually don't move much faster than the regular lanes.

Bravo said the free-flowing express area could cut bus travel times in half between downtown and the Golden Glades.

The state also is proposing using some of the toll proceeds to help the counties buy additional express buses that could be used to cross county lines, instead of the current situation in which riders have to transfer at the Golden Glades park-and-ride.

Popular Broward express buses that run the US 441 corridor could enter I-95 at the Golden Glades and continue into downtown Miami.

"This is real bus rapid transit, " Bravo said. "We're really putting the transit rider ahead of the single-passenger vehicle in a separate, dedicated lane."

Florida is putting the final touches on a series of Federal Highway Administration grant applications under new programs aimed at reducing congestion with the "four T's:" tolls, transit, technology and telecommuting. Winners will be announced in August.

Tentative cost estimates range from $90 million -- if Broward only creates one express lane in each direction -- to $125 million for the two-lane version that runs all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Miami.

Bravo said it isn't clear whether the project will go forward if the state only secures a portion of the federal funding.

A smaller, low-tech version of the plan could roll out as early as next year.

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