To be perfectly honest, Bobby Wells, a Harley-riding, python-owning Miami lawyer, doesn’t really like his Toyota Prius.
But he does love that red and blue “95 Express” registration decal on the bottom left of his hybrid car’s windshield.
“Yeah,” said Wells, “the reason I bought this car was to get that sticker.”
I-95’s express lanes — where the price of admission ranges from 50 cents to $10.50 depending on traffic — are free to registered hybrids. But that’s not going to last forever.
In about three years, the free rides will be over. And Wells will almost certainly be done with his Prius.
As of May, Wells’ Prius and 3,840 other hybrid or inherently low-emission vehicles, or ILEVs, were registered for free express trips. Those vehicles made up 63 percent of all exempt trips, up from 56 percent a year ago. By comparison, registered carpools, which also ride the express lanes for free, represent just 13 percent of cost-free trips. Buses, van pools and motorcycles account for the rest.
The increasing popularity of hybrids has been a concern for the Florida Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over I-95.
“Maybe they would take over the entire population of the users in the express lanes,” said Jennifer Fortunas, who works in FDOT’s systems planning office. “It may not happen within the first five years, but eventually you may not have any paying customers because they’re all going to be driving hybrids and riding in the express lanes.”
Fortunas admits she hasn’t seen any numbers that show this will happen on 95 Express. And right now hybrids and ILEVs only account for 3.8 percent of rush-hour traffic in the express lanes and around 2 percent of overall express lane trips.
“If there’s only 2 percent, then [hybrids] aren’t stealing that much revenue right now,” said Heidi Stamm, a Seattle-based HOV lanes consultant. “But 2 percent is 2 percent.”
According to FDOT reports, 95 Express has generated about $81.1 million since it first opened in 2008. If the low-emission vehicles had paid for their 321,518 trips over the past year, it would have meant $751,789.30 more for the state, according to Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise.
Charging for hybrids in the 95 express lanes may not be much of a choice for FDOT. The federal rules that oversee HOV lanes include a September 30, 2017, sunset of the hybrid exemption.
Pay to go express
Still, FDOT has made clear that tolled express lanes are the future for Florida highways, but free rides are not. The newly opened I-595 express lanes in Broward County are already charging hybrids and carpools. The coming 75 Express and Palmetto Express systems also will charge hybrids, public buses and carpools.
Stamm is credited with coining the phrase “Lexus Lanes” in the 1990s as a rallying cry against certain high-occupancy toll systems that she says are about making money instead of encouraging carpooling.
While Stamm thinks FDOT’s express lane policies are ultimately about money, she agrees that forcing hybrids to pay makes sense.
“On any piece of roadway a hybrid car takes up the same amount of space as any other car,” she said. “They don’t do anything to help congestion management.”
Debora Rivera, FDOT’s director of operations in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, adamantly denied the project is about anything but congestion management.
“I have said in more than one presentation and interview: If I could collect peanuts instead of quarters, hypothetically, and it actually influenced driver behavior, I’d be open to it,” she said.
For the most part, congestion management and emissions control go hand-in-hand; carpools and buses help get vehicles off the road, a plus for both traffic and pollution reduction. Hybrid exemptions are more complicated.
In 2003, the Florida Legislature passed a law allowing low-emission vehicles into South Florida’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes, typically reserved for carpools and buses. One of the bill’s advocates, then Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, told the Miami Herald the exemption would “help us reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.”
The more pressing issue for I-95 in South Florida, however, was congestion. According to FDOT numbers, rush-hour traffic on I-95 in Miami-Dade was averaging, at best, 20 mph before 95 Express was built. FDOT says the problem was so bad it was considering a double-decker highway.
A cheaper — and self-funding — solution was to convert the existing HOV lanes into HOT, or high-occupancy toll lanes. In 2008, the first 95 Express lanes opened, allowing single-occupancy vehicles the option of paying to get into the HOV lanes.
As part of the conversion, the existing HOV exemptions were grandfathered in: hybrids and carpools had to register to ride free, and a carpool was redefined as three people instead of two.
Buying a hybrid suddenly came with an added perk, something prospective hybrid buyers asked about when they visited Kendall Toyota.
“People that live in urban areas where the commute becomes an issue for them daily, it’s certainly a comfort for them to know that they’re able to save that money,” said fleet manager Michael Cordero. “It’s just an added benefit.”
Kendall Toyota has sold about 270 Priuses this year, though Cordero says the main reason hybrids sell will always be gas mileage, not express passes.
Incenting hybrid vehicles, though, doesn’t necessarily help with congestion. One person in a Prius creates about as much traffic as one person in a Hummer. In California, where the most hybrids are sold, the transportation department limits the number of exemption stickers to strike a balance between encouraging efficient-car purchases and keeping HOV lanes moving.
Between 2 percent and 6 percent of California’s rush-hour HOV traffic is hybrid vehicles, according to Caltrans, the state’s department of transportation. “Based on our data, hybrid vehicles do not impact Caltrans’ ability to manage congestion since it represents a small percentage of the HOV volume,” spokesman Matt Rocco said in an email.
Bobby Wells, the reluctant Prius owner, admits the 95 Express hybrid exemption worked on him. When the fast-lane freebies disappear, he’s almost definitely dumping the Prius.
“So the benefits, I think, should be there to promote this,” Wells said. “There are obviously environmental benefits and all these type of things that go along with clean-burning vehicles.”
The good news for Wells is that FDOT says it does not plan on charging for his other form of travel on the 95 Express lanes — his Harley-Davidson.
FDOT numbers show that hardly anyone uses the 95 Express motorcycle exemption. Jennifer Fortunas says the plan is to keep that in place beyond 2017.
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.