Brian Rick is on a crusade. As a spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation he has chewed the ear of dozens, maybe a hundred people -- reporters, friends, anybody who refers to 95 Express as the “Lexus Lanes.”
“You don’t see a Lexus every two or three cars," Rick says. He notices the pickup trucks and work vans. "If you're delivering auto parts or you're delivering medical supplies... that's where reliability becomes essential. "
The 95 Express project was the first dynamic tolling system in Florida. The special lanes let drivers pay to get out of regular traffic. FDOT keeps the lanes running smoothly by varying the toll. When more drivers pile in, the cost goes up to discourage too many more from cramming in and ruining the flow.
To say these lanes are a success, in FDOT’s eyes, is an understatement. Officials point to numbers that show rush hour traffic moving two and three times faster. The lanes were so popular that the original $7 cap couldn’t scare enough drivers away and had to be raised to $10.50. So far, 95 Express has made more than $79 million in toll revenue.
Express is the new black. I-595 got express lanes. I-75 is getting them. The Palmetto Expressway, too.
Considering its derogatory nature, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that “Lexus Lanes” is the phrase-which-shall-not-be-uttered within FDOT ranks.
BY THE NUMBERS
Aside from anecdotal car-counting, there aren't real numbers to say who is driving in the 95 express lanes. But researchers at Georgia Tech University recently tested a very literal interpretation of the “Lexus Lanes” nickname by looking at the makes and models of vehicles on their own express lane system on I-85 in Atlanta.
The top four cars were exactly the same in both the pay and free lanes: Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford F-150. (Although the Civics, Accords, Camrys and F-150s were, on average, a year newer in the express lanes.)
There wasn’t a Lexus to be found in the top 20 most popular cars in the the free lanes. But two Lexus models -- the RX and the ES -- were the 13th and 17th most popular cars in the express lanes.
Studies also show that people with higher income are more likely to use express lanes and pay their way out of traffic.
But proponents of the system are quick to point to the kinds of Average Joes who benefit from simply having a choice between being stuck in traffic and paying for a reliable route.
“A mother with a kid in daycare, people going to the airport,” says Robert Poole with the libertarian think tank The Reason Foundation. “People on hourly pay scales that might get docked pay if they’re late to work the fourth time in a row.”
Poole has been called the godfather of dynamic tolling. He was an early proponent and has helped implement the systems across the country -- including in Miami.
While Poole isn’t fond of the “Lexus Lanes” moniker, he isn’t really bothered by it either. He understands it has simply become a synonym for his brainchild. But that’s not to say it hasn’t affected him.
“I actually made a decision [not to buy a Lexus] although I could afford a Lexus by the later stages of my career,” says Poole. “I was concerned about not having people be able to typecast me: Oh, he’s just one of those people who drives a Lexus and doesn’t care about anybody else.”
The phrase seems to have originated during the mid 1990s, when transponder technology made the idea of a high-speed tolling lane possible. Washington state was considering converting an existing HOV lane near Seattle into an express lane.
“It was just like, ‘Wow, you know what this feels like? This feels like people with a lot of money are the only ones who are going to use it,’” says Heidi Stamm, a transportation consultant who opposed the project. “People who drive cars like Mercedes, like BMWs, like Lexuses.”
Stamm is credited with introducing “Lexus Lanes” into the public discourse. While that particular Washington project didn’t take off, Stamm’s phrase did.
In the mid-1990's, California was the first state to open a high occupancy tolling system.
“In San Diego County, officials will soon open a ‘Lexus lane...’" reads a Los Angeles Times story from September of ’95.
“It’s only partly a joke that California toll roads have earned the nickname ‘Lexus Lanes,’” reads a Seattle Times story from a couple years later.
Stamm says she’s lost control of the phrase. There are some high-occupancy toll systems she wouldn’t actually call “Lexus Lanes” -- ones that still do a good job encouraging high-occupancy transportation. But even those get slapped with the L-words.
After 12 years, Brian Rick recently moved on from his job as FDOT spokesman. He’s headed to North Carolina. One thing he’s not leaving behind: his disdain for “Lexus Lanes.”
While Rick was always good at pointing out the nuts and bolts of why the phrase is misleading -- it’s not all Lexus drivers, lots of working-class people like the lanes, it helps everyone -- he has a much deeper-seated hatred of the phrase.
“When I was a young writer, in my teen years, I loved alliteration,” says Rick, a novelist trapped in a spokesman’s office. Rick says he wrote a novel as a 12-year-old.
“One of my earliest characters was named Gregory Galveston who admired a character named Lawrence Lorber,” he says. “Alliteration ad nauseum. And it’s very flippant. It’s often hokey.”
Simply put: Brian Rick hates “Lexus Lanes” because he hates alliteration. To him, it’s just crappy writing. Reminds him of the writing of a 12-year-old.
“Or maybe a 14-year-old," he says. "Being generous.”