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Tennessee Votes for Toll Lanes After Decades of Resistance

The Transportation Modernization Act will bring “choice lanes” to the state for the first time. Dubbed by some as "Lexus lanes," they will let drivers pay to bypass traffic, but aren’t likely to reduce congestion overall.

In Brief:
  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill in April that will allow for the creation of “choice lanes” on congested highways in urban areas.

  • The plan would let drivers pay a fee, which rises and falls with traffic demand, to use an express lane. 

  • Buses will be able to use the lanes without paying the toll.

  • The plan isn’t likely to reduce congestion overall.

  • In April, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the Transportation Modernization Act, a $3.3 billion highway bill that changes the way roads can be constructed and built, increases user fees for electric vehicles, and authorizes public-private partnerships for the development of so-called “choice lanes.”

    The choice lanes concept goes by other names in other places — most commonly managed lanes, express toll lanes or, pejoratively, Lexus lanes. They are essentially highway lanes with toll prices that vary based on congestion: Prices rise when traffic increases to keep cars in the toll lanes moving and generate more money from drivers who choose to pay. The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) will explore the creation of choice lanes on frequently congested roadways in big metro areas.

    “The goal is to relieve congestion and create more reliable trip times,” a TDOT spokesperson said in an email. “While many motorists may choose to stay in the general-purpose lanes, they still enjoy the benefit of reduced congestion as other motorists move into the additional choice lanes.”

    While some managed lanes have been successful at providing quick alternatives for drivers who pay to opt out of traffic, there’s less evidence they do much to reduce traffic overall, experts say.

    Tolls Help Fund Highway Construction and Maintenance

    Tolled roads are common throughout much of the United States, but until now, Tennessee and several other states in the south, southwest and northwest have been completely toll free. There’s still widespread opposition to tolling in the state, and even the concept of choice lanes — which doesn’t force anyone onto a toll road — has been controversial.

    Every state funds highway maintenance and construction with a gas tax and some type of vehicle registration fee, says Susan Howard, director of policy and government relations at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). But from there, the funding mechanisms blossom out in dozens of directions.

    Texas, Florida, Georgia and California have used managed lanes similar to the type that Tennessee is pursuing, and northern Virginia has an extensive network of “choice lanes” as well. TDOT is planning to spend the rest of the year appointing a transportation modernization board and creating an implementation plan for its choice lanes. The choice lanes will be built through public-private partnerships in urban areas, which will “free up state funds for other projects in rural parts of the state,” a TDOT spokesperson said.

    Pitching Transportation ‘Choices’

    The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, has been campaigning for variable-price toll lanes for years. A primary benefit of the model is that it gives drivers a choice of whether to pay for a faster trip, says Baruch Feigenbaum, the foundation’s senior managing director for transportation policy. They also rely more on the drivers that use those specific roads to generate funds, whereas other roads are funded by broader-based taxes, and they help manage demand for scarce roadway space, says Feigenbaum, who worked with Tennessee lawmakers on the proposal.

    While they’re sometimes called Lexus lanes because drivers have to pay sometimes steep fees to use them, one study suggests that lower-income people derive more benefit from choice lanes than higher-income people. In Tennessee, the lanes are also being pitched as a boon to public transit systems. Buses will be able to use the choice lanes without paying a toll, according to the bill. That may help make transit faster and more reliable in some areas, and could possibly encourage some drivers to opt for the bus, says Jason Spain, executive director of the Tennessee Public Transportation Association, which supported the bill.

    “[Drivers] need to see that it’s a faster, more efficient way to get where they want to go than sitting in their personal vehicles,” Spain says.

    Congestion Will Persist

    Choice lanes “do tend to reduce congestion in the non-tolled lanes somewhat,” Feigenbaum says, but the Reason Foundation doesn’t usually push that as a primary benefit. The lanes tend to be built in growing areas, where congestion is getting worse overall. In fact, congestion is “synonymous with growth,” said highway planner Chuck Fuhs in a lecture about the evolution of managed lanes before the Transportation Research Board in January. Nearly a quarter of all vehicle miles traveled in urban areas occur in congestion, he said. Managed lanes, which include high-occupancy vehicle or carpool lanes, only handle a comparative few drivers — a challenge to highway planners in the future.

    “Since we only serve a small portion of total demand [in managed lanes], are we really providing a meaningful and safe option of choice to travelers?” Fuhs said.

    Variable pricing, or congestion pricing, is a smart way to manage demand for road space, says Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America. But, “I’d prefer to see it come out of existing lanes,” she says.

    “I don’t believe the notion that by pulling people into those priced lanes you will alleviate congestion for anybody else — I haven’t seen any of that,” Osborne says.

    Three quarters of managed lanes in the U.S. were purpose-built, according to the Reason Foundation, adding travel capacity to the roads they’re built on. That will be the case in Tennessee as well. That could help some travelers bypass traffic congestion for urgent trips, and it could make some bus trips more efficient too.

    But it isn’t likely to reduce congestion on urban highways overall, especially in areas like Nashville, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. And if the state uses new funding to add more general-purpose highway lanes elsewhere, it’s only likely to induce demand and make congestion worse in the long run.

    “It’s really important that states are clear about exactly what they hope to accomplish and clearly define some targets and when they are going to report back on those targets to see what these projects have accomplished,” Osborne says. “States promise that various investments will reduce congestion, but we have gotten that promise on thousands of projects while having congestion go up consistently.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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