“Lexus lanes” may have been too cheap for Miami. This past Saturday morning, South Florida drivers traded in for “Lamborghini lanes.”
The maximum possible toll on the 95 Express lanes increased from $7.00 to $10.50 — the mininum has doubled to 50 cents — in response to record numbers of motorists forking over what was thought to be a discouragingly high amount of money.
“That day you paid seven bucks, we were trying to get you not to go there,” said Rory Santana, who oversees Miami-Dade County’s stretch of 95 Express for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Indeed, the goal of the 95 Express’ dynamic tolling increase is simple: keep the fast lanes fast by limiting the number of motorists. That glowing toll amount has nothing to do with how good or how bad traffic is in the non-express lanes.
“If [the toll’s] seven dollars and everybody piles in [the express lanes],” said Santana, “we lost our opportunity to try and keep the spaces between the vehicles there and keep the speed up and keep the flow going... And if it breaks down, the general purpose lanes breaks down.”
FDOT numbers show that the express lanes, of late, have failed to provide a reliably free-flowing trip during peak traffic hours, most notably the 4 to 7 p.m. northbound trip.
Part of the problem appears to be a phenomenon documented on Minnesota’s MnPASS system, after which 95 Express is modeled. Engineers found that, up to a point, drivers are actually drawn to higher tolls.
“And that’s surprising,” said David Levinson a professor of civil engineering at University of Minnesota and a study author. “Our hypothesis as to why that’s the case is that users of the system are using the posted price... as information about what the time savings is on the MnPASS lanes.”
FDOT is seeing evidence of the same thing, drivers assuming a higher toll means more time savings.
“It’s not surprising in that it doesn’t make sense,” said Carlos Lora, 29, who regularly uses the northbound express lanes during peak travel times. It’s “surprising in that I was so wrong.”
Lora, who manages a condo building in South Beach and lives in Hollywood Beach with his wife and two Italian greyhounds, wondered why he kept getting stuck in congestion after paying $7.00. Although, he added, he was okay with it as long he was going faster than the cars to his right.
“If the cost in front of me is $10.50 to be home with my wife on an evening,” said Lora, “that definitely outweighs any cost you can bring me.”
The toll dollars are no small amount. Last year, transit officials collected $19.6 million, bringing the total revenue for the project to $71.2 million. The project was launched in December 2008.
Not all drivers will be pleased with the new costlier tolls.
“I was writing about your obscene prices lately during morning rush hour,” read one of many emails FDOT gets about the express lanes. “I spend a lot of money on those lanes, probably $100 a month. But there becomes a point where it is just too expensive.”
To an extent, that is the point.
By raising the maximum toll, FDOT hopes to find a sweet spot that scares just enough drivers back into the general purpose lanes to restore free-flowing traffic in the express lanes. If the maximum toll is hit on 45 days during any 180-day-stretch, the cap will increase again and again until they fix the problem of congestion in the express lanes.
“Certainly there were several lessons that were learned on 95,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, CEO of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. The main lesson being: Don’t cap the tolls. Future express lane projects will be “fully dynamic” with a $0.50 minimum toll.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti says the minimum increase was to avoid “significantly steeper changes in that dynamic pricing.” She recognizes that this will cause people to reevaluate whether or not the express lanes are for them.
“What we’ve said all along is use of the express lanes is a choice,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti. “You are not forced to go in the express lane. You are not forced to pay the $0.50 or... if on any given day it hits the max. What we’re trying to do is provide a congestion management tool and we do it through pricing.”
This story is part of The End of the Road, a WLRN-Miami Herald News project examining South Florida's stretch of I-95. See the whole project here.
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.