CORNELIUS – Toll lanes will prepare the region for future growth in a way that an additional general-purpose lane couldn't, a managed lanes expert told the Lake Norman Transportation Commission at its Feb. 13 meeting. 

David Ungemah, the national managed lanes director for Parson Brinckerhoff, discussed both the benefits and challenges of implementing managed lanes.

“I am not passionate about tolls, pricing or building new lanes,” Ungemah said. “Guaranteeing congestion free travel is what I am passionate about.”

Ungemah has worked on transportation projects all over the country, including North Carolina.

The need for managed lanes, he said, stems from the fact that vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient and drivers are contributing less through gas taxes to pay for roads. And the decreased funding lowers the state's ability to address congestion issues.

“We are traveling a lot more on the roads that we have,” Ungemah said. “We are putting more miles on our vehicles than we were before. We pay by fuel consumption, not by where we drive, when we drive or how we drive. As a result, our demand is in imbalance as it relates to supply.”

Some of the benefits of managed lanes, he said, are greater road capacity, travel time reliability, decreased fuel consumption, improved air quality and revenue generation.

In most cases, the money collected from tolls pays for operation and maintenance. Only a little bit of the revenue goes to construction costs, Ungemah said.

There are a few cities with severe congestion where HOT lanes have become a reliable revenue stream, such as State Route 91 in southern California, which generates about $45 million a year in toll fees.

In contrast, the toll lane on Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City makes about $600,000 a year. "Which only generates enough revenue to pay for the toll collection," Ungemah said. "But their toll rates are low and the congestion isn't as significant."

It's not clear where I-77 would fall in the spectrum. 

Long-term advantages

Managed lanes have the advantage of handling traffic increases over the long term, according to Ungemah.

In the short term, toll lanes and general purpose lanes will perform nearly the same, he said.

Over time, congestion will begin to increase. 

“You’ll see a degradation of travel time and reliability,” Ungemah said. “Managed lanes are starting to show it’s good return on investment.”

In the long term, with only general purpose lanes,  “we start seeing congestion returns back to where it was before we widened it,” Ungemah said. “There is no mechanism to ensure reliability or travel time.”

Managed lanes will continue to provide congestion free traffic to the overall corridor.

“The decision we make today can still yield benefits 30 years from now,” Ungemah said. “We have the ability to come up with a plan of action that can actually still be useful to future generations.”

This meeting was meant to be an informative session and not directly related the placement of HOT lanes along I-77.

“This is a topic that we are all interested in as citizens of our region,” said Cornelius Commissioner and LNTC Chairman Chuck Travis. “In 2010, the LNTC endorsed this plan presented to us, and it has gone through a process of being endorsed by all the towns and has moved forward to the NCDOT as a result of that.”

The LNTC will hold it’s next meeting on March 13, but the board hasn't determined the location. Discussions will focus on public-private partnerships and the P3s that could manage the I-77 project.

How do HOT lanes work?

Drivers are asked to set-up pre-paid accounts. HOT lanes use electronic toll collection systems equipped with video and transponder technology that automatically deducts the tolls from customer accounts. Drivers also have the option of receiving a bill in the mail after using the HOT lane, but at a higher toll rate.

Have general purpose lanes been considered as an alternative solution?

General purpose lanes cannot be in place until 2030 under the current funding availability. And even then, continuing to add general purpose lanes does not provide a long term solution to congestion issues. Experience has shown that congestion will build again and future road widening has physical limitations.