Traffic

You’ll soon have to pay to drive in the fast lane on the Palmetto. Wait, there’s a fast lane?

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Find out where your money goes every time you pass a toll.

Miami commuters know the pain of the Palmetto.

It’s a highway in a perpetual rush hour. Unless you’re traveling in the wee hours or on the weekend, “express” is not an option.

Until now.

The Palmetto Expressway, also known as State Road 826, is about to get its first express lanes. And just like those on Interstate 95, drivers will pay for the pleasure of moving.

The first phase of the project is entering its final stage before the Aug. 6 debut. Here’s what express-lane drivers will get at first: 13 miles southbound highway that will vary in toll cost depending on Palmetto traffic flow. The express lanes will run from West Flagler Street to just north of Northwest 154th Street, and at I-75 to Northwest 170th Street.

The northbound express lanes are expected to open and collect tolls starting Sept. 5.

“The project creates choices for consistent and dependable travel throughout the day and particularly during peak times,” promises the Florida Department of Transportation.

The entire three-phase endeavor will cost roughly $719 million.

Just like on I-95, drivers will have to pay with SunPass for the quicker lanes. The average toll price in the I-95 express lanes ranges from $2.75 to $7 during rush hour. The stretch is often cheekily called the “Lexus Lanes” because of the price.

per0726expressway
As Florida Department of Transportation’s project to add variable-toll express lanes — much like the I-95 — enters the final phase of construction, Miami commuters will be able to pay to avoid traffic on 13 miles of road running southbound by Aug. 6. C.M. GUERRERO EL NUEVO HERALD

The goal is to get traffic moving better on the Palmetto, with the express lanes pulling cars from the slower free lanes. The Florida Department of Transportation says the average rush-hour speed on I-95 increased from 20 mph to 40 mph after express lanes were added. The average speed in the express lanes was over 55 mph.

FDOT expects to see similar results on 826, agency spokeswoman Marta Rodriguez wrote in an email.

The trade-off for going the actual speed limit in the new lanes? Fewer access points.

Drivers can enter the express lanes northbound or exit them southbound between West Flagler Street and the Dolphin Expressway, Northwest 36th and 58th streets, and Okeechobee Road and 103rd Street. They can exit the toll lanes northbound and enter them southbound north of 154th Street or by connecting directly between the Palmetto Expressway and I-75.

FDOT built one additional lane in each direction to make the express lanes possible. FDOT did not have to purchase or take any neighboring property to carve out the new stretch.

Looking ahead to the next phases, plans call for adding express lanes to eight miles of highway running from I-75 to west of Northwest 17th Avenue, and adding seven miles of express lanes from U.S. 1 to the Dolphin Expressway. Both are still in the design phase.

Despite the promise of more free-flowing traffic, the so-called Lexus Lanes have faced criticism.

Carlos Garcia, who founded the Miami advocacy group Roll Back Tolls, previously told the Miami Herald he felt the lanes were “a division of classes.”

FDOT’s spokeswoman says that “the use of express lanes is entirely optional.”

“Express lanes benefit all drivers, regardless of their income or socio-economic level,” Rodriguez said. “The goal of the project is to increase the people-moving capacity on the highway to promote trip reliability and safety.”

Some Miami drivers are skeptical that the lanes will actually improve traffic.

Alberta Williams, 52, who takes the Palmetto to get to work in West Little River, does not think the new lanes will make a difference.

“We live here, we commute to work, and they’re trying to charge us for literally taking the expressway to get to work,” Williams said. “Now these people are going to have to pay for a toll to get home.”

Workers will begin to install the express lane signs on Tuesday, July 16, working between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. nightly.

But before things get faster, they’re going to get slower.

FDOT has posted a schedule of lane closures during construction on its website.

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