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Hillsborough's $1 million study will look at toll lanes and express buses

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's expressway authority and transit agency are planning a $1 million study to consider pay-as-you-go toll roads accessible to cars and express buses.

The study, set to start in early September and funded partly by the Federal Highway Administration, would look at alternatives to traditional taxpayer-funded road projects. It would determine whether transit agencies and tolling authorities should pool their funding abilities to build toll roads and then split the revenues.

"This is not about converting existing lanes, it's about adding lanes," said Marty Stone, planning director for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.

Stone and the authority dub the concept "bus toll lanes" because it combines transit and tolling. From there, the idea borrows from toll systems locally and around the country, such as overhead gantries to collect tolls electronically and variable pricing, which ties toll rates to roads' current congestion levels.

Depending on funding, population density and traffic, the agencies might also consider reversible lanes for peak travel hours, as well as elevated through-lanes that bypass clogged intersections.

Some creative tolling options are already playing out around the state.

Two years ago, variable-priced tolling debuted on 8 miles of Interstate 95 in Miami-Dade County and plans are under way to add toll lanes with overhead gantries to 21 miles of Interstate 4 around Orlando.

Transportation officials say the Miami-Dade project, which added two toll lanes, is helping to lower congestion during peak hours on interstate lanes that don't charge a toll.

Officials say it could be years before the Expressway Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit ever build toll roads together, and no definite plans are in the works.

For now, the agencies are trying to calculate the potential costs that transit and toll road agencies would incur building the roads, where and how to build them, where to get the money and the amount of revenue each could derive from the tolls.

"This study will determine the financial feasibility of these lanes and whether, as we think, we have found a new way to create long-term financial stability for transit agencies," Stone said.

HART's planning director Mary Schavalier called the concept a potential money-saver that could lead to steady revenues unconnected to the fare box.

The concept isn't entirely taxpayer-free, though: Because most transit agencies are strapped when it comes to big-ticket expenditures, they might need federal grants to come up with their portion of the road-building money. Toll agencies, on the other hand, can turn to banks to fund their share.

Schavalier said no obvious targets come to mind for the bus-toll concept, but it could be applied to traditionally busy corridors such as Interstate 275 and Dale Mabry Highway, or wherever else motorists are willing to pay a premium to avoid traffic. Buses would travel for free on the roads.

The yearlong study comes as both Congress and the Federal Highway Administration are exploring funding options for highways. In March, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told tolling agencies around the country that he's open to new funding strategies as states, including Florida, grapple with shrinking tax revenues and rising road costs.

After a four-year decline in Florida, road construction prices are again creeping upward. The Florida Department of Transportation says the average cost in an urban area for a milelong, two-lane highway jumped to $10.1 million last year from $9.2 million the year before.

"Our position is, we have to be financially stable," Stone said. "Gas taxes are diminishing and states don't have enough money anymore to build new or repair existing roadways. We're in a position now where we have to think about new financial models."

Hillsborough's $1 million study will look at toll lanes and express buses 06/05/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 5, 2011 10:22pm]
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