TAMPA — Tampa Bay's chronically congested interstates may soon get some breathing room: toll lanes that are sometimes dubbed "Lexus lanes."
The Florida Department of Transportation plans to launch five studies this summer and fall to assess the costs and benefits of adding toll lanes to parts of Interstate 275, I-75 and I-4 near the Polk County line.
Depending on the findings, department officials say they might then launch a multiyear, toll-lane building program.
"We want to develop these projects and get them ready for implementation," said Don Skelton, who heads DOT's regional office in Tampa. "We're looking at the urbanized area throughout our district."
The studies will focus on I-275 in Pinellas, including the Howard Frankland Bridge; the portion in Hillsborough between the Frankland bridge and I-4; I-275 from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to Bearss Avenue; and I-4 between 50th Street and the Polk County Parkway.
A separate study looking at the possible widening of I-75 from Progress Boulevard in east Tampa to State Road 56 in Pasco County will also look at toll lanes. The studies will cost $1 million to $2 million each and take about a year to complete.
Not everyone supports so-called managed toll lanes, although states are starting to embrace them as an option to traditional gas tax-funded projects. Critics deride them as "Lexus lanes" to suggest they're used by wealthy drivers and ignore average citizens' needs.
So far, 10 states, including Georgia, Minnesota and Washington, operate or are adding managed lanes. Florida operates toll lanes on a stretch of I-95 near Miami. The concept originated 20 years ago in southern California.
Unlike most traditional toll roads, managed lanes use a floating toll rate. The tolls are collected electronically using overhead gantries and devices like SunPass.
As traffic picks up on the non-toll lanes, typically around rush hour, toll rates on the managed lanes go up. They can be waived for car pools and buses.
Depending on the time of day and level of congestion, the tolls might run from $3 to $6.50 one-way during rush hour, said Katharine Nees, a consultant with Jacobs Engineering Group, one of the world's largest engineering companies.
Despite initial criticism, Nees said, the public is warming to the idea of paying to avoid sitting in traffic.
"I think of it as like a Starbucks cup of coffee. For about the same price as a Starbucks coffee, you can get home to your family a half-hour earlier," she said. "In California, a lot of people, middle class and low-income, use the lanes to pick up their children from day care."
Florida started turning to managed lanes three years ago when the department added two toll lanes to 8 miles of I-95 in Miami-Dade County.
Pleased that it lowered congestion, state transportation officials then began considering it for other highways around the state, including 21 miles of I-4 in downtown Orlando and portions of I-295 in Jacksonville and I-75 in Broward County.
Hillsborough and Pinellas are the latest areas under consideration. Adding the lanes here could cost tens of millions of dollars, depending on the complexity of each project and whether they involve purchasing right-of-way. Future toll revenues would offset much of the cost, though. The Miami system generates a reported $1 million a month.
Whether officials move forward will depend on the studies' findings. The DOT might also opt for a public-private partnership or agree to allow a private company to build and operate the lanes on its own.
"There are a number of financial arrangements that could be undertaken," Skelton said.
In addition to the projected costs, the studies will assess current and projected traffic volumes for peak and off-peak hours, what the lanes might look like, and their anticipated benefits, Skelton said.
The first studies, looking at I-4 in east Hillsborough and I-275 in Pinellas, are expected to start in June.
"From a timing aspect, what we want to look at is, do we have the volume now or when does this make sense to do this?" he said.