The maximum possible toll on 95 Express increased from $7 to $10.50 on March 1. Two days later at 5:30 p.m., the cost of using the northbound express lanes hit the $10.50 maximum.
Rory Santana from the Florida Department of Transportation says a truck jack-knifed and backed up the highway, so people flooded 95 Express and drove the price into the ceiling.
Since March 1 the cost of a ride in the fast lane has hit $10.50 at least 13 times. Nine of those cases occurred on the northbound express lanes, seven of which happened between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Entering the express lanes is free for registered carpools and hybrid vehicles, but it costs other drivers $0.50 to $10.50, depending on how many cars have already gotten in. The more demand for the express lanes, the higher the toll goes to ensure free-flowing traffic.
(Below, a table of all the $10.50 toll occurrences from March 1 through April 22. Click column headers to sort data.)
The 95 Express Project launched in 2008 as a way to increase the capacity of I-95 during the highway’s peak travel times: 6 to 9 a.m. in the southbound lanes and 4 to 7 p.m. in the northbound lanes.
Up until March the toll had been capped at $7. But over time, with drivers willing to pay the maxed-out fare, express lanes began to break down during peak travel times and fell below the federal minimum standards for high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.
“And that’s 45 mph 90 percent of the time to make sure it’s still a functional lane,” says Mark Burris, an expert in HOT lanes at Texas A&M University.
By that standard, the northbound section of 95 Express failed to be a “functional lane” during the crucial hours of peak travel from July 2013 to February 2014. During that stretch, officials were working to expand their tolling range.
The Florida Turnpike Enterprise, in charge of setting tolls in Florida, spent nine months adjusting the rate, says CEO Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti. She says future express lane projects will be market-based -- i.e. no more limits on how high a toll can go.
The section of 95 Express in Miami-Dade County will still have a cap, sort of.
According to the new tolling rule the maximum toll would automatically go up if too many drivers are willing to pay $10.50. So if the toll hits its maximum on 45 different days during any six-month stretch, the cap would automatically increase by $3.50 starting the first day of the following month. (The northbound and southbound lanes are treated independently. For example, it’s possible for the northbound cap to increase while the southbound does not.)
But the new maximum seems to be doing the trick. In March, 90.2 percent of northbound 95 Express trips were 45 mph or faster, breaking the eight-month streak of failure. And even with the higher maximum toll average rush hour tolls were down year-over-year: dropping from $3.23 to $2.17 in the northbound direction and from $2.28 to $1.60 in the southbound lanes.
While the number of $10.50 tolls initially surprised FDOT engineer Rory Santana, he doesn’t think a higher cap will be triggered anytime soon. Even though the new maximum started in March and April -- two of the most trafficked months on I-95 -- neither direction of 95 Express is on pace to hit $10.50 on 45 different days.
“We do have [$10.50 tolls] occasionally now with the rain storms and some special occasions,” says Santana. “But I think we’re stabilized at a lower rate than that.”