Florida brings dynamically priced express lanes to an already tolled road

By Rayla Bellis

The Veterans Expressway in Tampa (State Route 589) will soon be the latest highway in the country to get a dynamically priced express lane in each direction. However, unlike most other managed lanes around the nation, which are typically implemented on an untolled roadway, the Veterans Expressway already has a toll for its general-purpose lanes.

A final three-mile section of the new express lanes opened in late May, extending from Gunn Highway to Dale Mabry Highway. This marks the last leg of a larger nine-mile project to add express lanes southbound from Hutchinson Road to Memorial Highway, and northbound from Hillsborough Avenue to Dale Mabry. The new lanes are initially being tolled at the same rate as the existing general-use lanes. Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, a business unit of the Florida Department of Transportation, will begin implementing the variable, congestion-based toll rate later this year.

Once the variable pricing begins, the price to use the express lanes will increase and decrease in real time based on the level of congestion. The toll rate will include the general toll, plus the variable express lane toll when applicable. Drivers will be able to see the price before entering the express lanes via overhead signs, helping them decide whether or not to pay the extra amount to avoid traffic. They will be charged that rate when they enter the lanes, so that any subsequent increase in the rate won’t impact them. Only drivers with SunPass or other transponders will be able to use the new lanes—cash and Pay-by-Plate options will not be available.

The state has plans to roll out similar dynamically priced express lanes on other existing toll roads, like Florida’s Turnpike. These planned express lanes have been controversial. Some critics have called them a “double toll,” though all drivers will only be tolled once, regardless of which lane they select. Frustrated drivers have also argued that they already pay hundreds of dollars per year to drive on the Veterans Expressway without the addition of the higher rate, though they will still have the option to pay the existing toll rate on the general-use lanes.

Other critics, including law enforcement, have raised concerns about safety. Existing express lanes on Miami’s I-95 have been criticized for encouraging dangerous “lane diving”—drivers crashing through the plastic dividers separating the express lane to veer in or out. A nearly 4-mile stretch of I-95’s express lane was recently named the most deadly road in the state by a study conducted by Stein Law Group and marketing firm, 1POINT21.

However, supporters of the new express lanes argue that dynamically priced lanes improve commutes for all users—including those that won’t regularly be opting to use the variably priced lanes, as SSTI discussed in a recent post. Some supporters have also noted that the new lanes will reduce merging movements that currently slow traffic, since drivers will be staying in the express lanes for at least six miles once they enter them, assuming they follow traffic laws.

Regardless, dynamic pricing is gaining interest among state DOTs as a tool to manage congestion, and Florida’s experience introducing dynamically priced lanes to existing toll roads could pave the way for other states to consider similar approaches.