TAMPA — Drivers on Veterans Expressway are used to paying tolls, but starting in 2017, the state will charge commuters even more if they want to avoid heavy traffic.
For the first time ever in the United States, a toll road is getting an even more expensive toll lane, according to Florida's Turnpike Enterprise.
Drivers who use the express lane will pay an extra fee for the privilege — and the price will fluctuate depending on congestion. The express toll will start at an additional 25 cents. So far, there is no cap on how high it could go.
Express toll lanes have been added to free roads, such as the LBJ Freeway in Dallas. They have been converted from existing high occupancy vehicle lanes, such as on Interstate 95 in Miami.
But this is a "unique situation,'' said Jeffrey Brown, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.
"This is a pioneering project," he said. "It will be interesting to see what the demand looks like."
Construction on the $380 million widening of the Veterans Expressway started in summer 2013. When the project is finished in 2018, two lanes will be added in each direction: one an express lane, the other a general use toll lane.
"This widening represents the last widening we'll be able to do on the Veterans," Florida's Turnpike Enterprise spokeswoman Christa Deason said. "There's no more expansion room for additional lanes."
The express toll lane is the same concept as the Tampa Bay Express project that has enraged residents of downtown Tampa neighborhoods surrounding the Interstate 275 interchange. But unlike TBX, commuters on Veterans have been paying to access the road since it first opened two decades ago.
Some don't see a problem.
"The Veterans Expressway is already a toll road," said Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione, an outspoken opponent of TBX. "The idea that they're using express toll lanes on the Veterans is just another way to manage their traffic. I think that's an appropriate thing for them to do."
Because the Veterans expansion will add more capacity to the expressway, the turnpike authority doesn't expect the express toll lanes to be in high demand immediately. That will change, Deason said, as Hillsborough County's population continues to grow over the next five to 10 years and congestion worsens.
Drivers who use the express toll lanes will be charged a variable rate based on the current level of demand. In Miami, tolls on I-95 top out at $10.50 one way.
It could get just as pricey on the Veterans. Consider the stretch from Gunn Highway to State Road 60:
Driving this span costs $1.06. Commuters who travel twice a day, five days a week, pay about $550 a year. If they don't have a transponder and instead use the toll-by-plate option, that figure jumps to about $715 a year.
It's impossible to calculate how much drivers could be paying if they use the new toll lane daily since there's no set maximum limit. But driving this section twice a day, five days a week would cost, at minimum, an additional $130 a year, and that's only if the price never rises above an additional quarter.
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If the flexible tolling in the express lane averages $3 per trip, as in Miami, the cost of commuting skyrockets to an additional $1,000 a year for that stretch of road.
The turnpike authority believes that many drivers will choose not to use the express toll lane on every trip. And if they do use the express lane, they won't be charged separately for the $1.06 required to travel Veterans in that span.
"We're not tolling you twice," Deason said. "You just make the decision for which lane you want to be in and that's the lane you're tolled in."
Drivers will have plenty of time to make the decision, Deason said. Overhead signs posted about a mile before the entrance will indicate how much the express lanes cost at that time of day.
The turnpike authority's goal is to keep traffic in the express lanes moving at a speed of at least 45 mph.
For commuters who have crawled through congestion at a maddening pace of 15 mph during rush hour, the change could bring sweet relief.
For those who study toll roads, 45 mph seems too lofty a goal.
"Oof," FSU professor Brown exhaled slowly when hearing the turnpike authority's expected speed for the lane.
"That's a very high minimum acceptable speed to set. … In the short term, it's probably fine, but if the growth they're anticipating materializes, not that it's impossible, but it could be a real challenge for them."
Other areas that have implemented an express toll lane have been overwhelmed by demand.
In Miami-Dade County, where the goal is also to keep traffic moving at 45 mph or faster, the $10.50 toll limit hasn't been high enough to keep congestion down in the I-95 express lanes.
In Los Angeles, so many drivers are using the express lanes that speeds have dropped to levels that could result in federal highway funds being withheld.
The turnpike authority says that won't be a problem in Hillsborough County, where traffic levels are much lower than in Miami and Los Angeles.
"You're dealing with a whole other level of traffic down there (in Miami)," Deason said. "We don't expect to see that on the Veterans. … We're not expecting to see people using the express lane every single day for every single trip they make."
Others remain skeptical that the average speed will remain high and the lane won't get bogged down.
"It's feasible to do," Brown said, "but you have to be willing to let the tolls go high enough so they act as a genuine disincentive for motorists who otherwise would be crowding into those lanes."
But the higher the tolls go, the greater the concern that the lanes become an option only for the wealthy. That's why opponents call express toll lanes "Lexus lanes."
Florida is the third most expensive state in the nation for owning a car. The average annual cost for driving, insuring and maintaining a car in Florida is $2,516, according to a 2014 study by Bankrate. That doesn't include tolls.
"You're already at a disadvantage because you have a toll facility, and lower income people can be priced out," said Jonathan Peters, a toll roads expert and finance professor at the College of Staten Island in New York. "You really should be thinking about how you could create a more fair system that's open and available to all individuals.
"Dynamic pricing says those who can pay can use it."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.