The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is finished with free trips in the fast lanes. The newly opened 595 Express and the planned 75 Express and Palmetto Express projects do not and will not include free rides for anyone.
But 95 Express, the first system of its kind in Florida, was the exception. Those lanes were created by converting high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into toll lanes, so HOV toll exemptions were initially grandfathered in.
But starting in 2017, FDOT says the hybrid and low-emission vehicle exemption is over for 95 Express. The federal rules that oversee HOV lanes include a sunset of the hybrid exemption: September 2017. Charging hybrids would be the first grandfathered exemption to be stripped away from 95 Express. (The plan is to still let registered carpools and public buses, for example, ride for free.)
FDOT says charging hybrids is about congestion management. Sun-setting rule or not, officials have expressed concern that free-riding hybrids could eventually take over the lanes and undercut their ability to control 95 Express traffic by varying the price of entry. Critics, on the other hand, say 95 Express is ultimately about revenue and that charging more vehicles is a goal in and of itself.
The chart below looks at how much exempt trips cost FDOT from April 2013 through April 2014. It’s important to see these dollar amounts as “potential revenue.” Drivers who know their trips are free will almost certainly use 95 Express more often than if they had to pay.
The “Carpools” category includes both registered carpools and vanpools. The “Buses” category includes coach buses – like Greyhounds – as well as Miami-Dade school buses, Miami-Dade County public buses, Broward County public buses in addition to other public transit vehicles from Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Not included in the chart are free trips taken by Road Rangers. The tow trucks, charged with clearing accidents and broken-down cars from 95 Express, accounted for 2,369 trips worth a total of $2,400.75 during the year.
$81 MILLION AND COUNTING
The 95 express lanes have brought in more than $81 million in tolls since they first opened in 2008. South Florida drivers took 1,783,415 fast-lane trips in May, and the vast majority – 96.6 percent – were paying trips. Drivers forked over a toll that ranges from $0.50 to $10.50 depending on traffic.
The other 3.6 percent comes from what FDOT calls “exempt trips.” Registered carpools, vanpools, hybrids and motorcycles. Public buses, school buses and coach buses all currently have the option of using 95 Express free-of-charge.
Low-emission vehicles (including hybrid vehicles) make up the majority of exempt trips: 63 percent in May. But as a percentage of overall traffic, those vehicles accounted for only 3.8 percent of express lane trips during rush hour and 2 percent of all express trips.
In addition to the hybrid exemption, FDOT says it plans on removing the "over the road bus" exemption which lets coach buses travel for free in 95 Express. Those buses account for just over 8 percent of all trips in the "Motorcycles/Buses" category.