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Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a big fan of interviews from friendly talk radio stations, used an Oct. 10, 2011, chat with a Daytona Beach host to discuss prudent investments for the state amid another big budget shortfall.
(Well, after saying Florida doesn't need more anthropologists, which created an uproar within the academic community. And after disputing that he's changed how he will measure his promise to create 700,000 private-sector jobs, which PolitiFact Florida gave a full-flop. Moving on ...)
Scott pointed to improving state ports in anticipation of the Panama Canal expansion, cargo rail and adding more toll roads across the state to support new construction projects. In his comments to host Marc Bernier, Scott said the state can designate toll lanes on federal highways as long as the state adds a new lane, and he cited changes to Interstate 95 as an example of how it can work well.
"We did that down in Broward County," he said. "It took the rush-hour traffic for the non-tolled lanes from 25 mph to 45 (mph). So for people not paying the toll it was a big benefit. We're going to start doing that across the state."
Scott's claim that express lanes improved rush-hour traffic for all drivers is interesting, especially given his signal that he wants to expand tolling statewide. He repeated the point a week later in an interview on Tampa Bay's WFLA-AM 970. We thought it wise to check his evidence.
95 Express, a primer
First we'll address what he's talking about, as it may not be obvious to residents outside of southeast Florida with its notoriously treacherous commutes. Scott was referring to "95 Express," a Florida Department of Transportation project unveiled in December 2008 to improve traffic speeds during the morning and afternoon rush hour.
He misspoke when he said the program was in Broward County. The only operational piece of the project is in Miami-Dade County.
DOT workers added new lanes to a 7.3-mile stretch of I-95 by repainting northbound and, about a year later, southbound lane lines. The express lanes replaced High Occupancy Vehicle, or HOV, lanes that were reserved for cars carrying two or more people, free of charge. The HOV lanes -- one in each direction -- were not very popular.
The special toll lanes, two in each direction, start at State Road 836, called the Dolphin Expressway, in Miami, and run north to the Golden Glades Interchange. The second phase, which was scheduled to begin construction in fall 2011, will extend from Golden Glades to Fort Lauderdale in Broward County.
A word about the tolls: They are paid automatically via electronic transponders (SunPass) but are not charged to motorcycles, registered carpools of three or more passengers, registered hybrid vehicles, and school and transit buses. Anyone else itching to use the lane less traveled pays a fee based on "congestion pricing," meaning the toll value changes with traffic load. The rate increases with demand, so drivers pay more to use the express lane when they need it most. The higher the toll, the busier the lanes.
DOT keeps a weekly estimate of these rates. From Oct. 3 to Oct. 7, 2011, the toll in both lanes was 25 cents from midnight to 7 a.m. But in the southbound lane, which takes on a heavier load of morning commuters, the fee got as high as $3. Conversely, the fee peaked at $2.75 in the northbound lanes from 5 to 6 p.m.
"They opt to pay the toll because they know they're going to have a more reliable trip," said Brian Rick, DOT District Six spokesman.
The program has generated about $28 million since its debut, he said, or about $1 million a month. That money pays for maintenance of the program and express buses that use the lanes. The first phase of construction cost about $132 million, according to the first yearly overview of the program. The second phase reaching Fort Lauderdale will cost an expected $92.7 million and be finished by 2014.
The express lanes reached their peak toll of $7.10 when fans piled on the highway after an Oct. 4, 2010, Miami Dolphins-New England Patriots game. That's a pretty steep fare at $1 per mile, earning the express lanes the nickname "Lexus lanes."
Scott is right: converting high-occupancy vehicle lanes to express lanes speeds up traffic, the program overview shows.
Traffic in both HOV and general lanes crawled below 20 mph during the morning and afternoon rush, according to a 2008 study of the HOV lanes. With the express lanes, southbound traffic in non-toll lanes jumped to an average 51 mph during morning rush hour, a 35.7 mph leap. In the northbound non-toll lanes during the afternoon rush, traffic sped up to 41.3 mph, improving by 22.5 mph.
DOT puts it more simply on its website: "With the opening of the express lanes, drivers are experiencing improved speeds above 40 MPH in the local lanes and 50 MPH in the express lanes along the northbound and southbound directions during rush hour periods."
A few caveats about DOT's numbers. The 2008 HOV study relied on peak periods of 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. In its evaluation of average speeds with 95 Express, DOT expanded the rush-hour periods by an additional hour from 6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. Also, the southbound toll lanes did not open until Jan. 15, 2010, halfway through the 2009-10 fiscal year during which DOT collected its speed data for both lanes.
There's also the number of vehicles using the highway to consider. The program improved peak-period speeds, but did it do the same for volume?
The southbound section in 2008 took on an average of 6,872 vehicles in the HOV and general purpose lanes per hour during the morning peak period. In the northbound section, the 2008 hourly peak period figure was 7,843. In 2010 (keeping in mind the caveats we mentioned before) the southbound express and general purpose lanes moved a total of about 8,916 vehicles per morning rush hour, and 7,856 vehicles per hour in the northbound section in the afternoon.
DOT has not completed its fiscal year 2011 report, but project manager Rory Santana said volume is improving as peak-period speeds stay the same.
In an interview, he acknowledged the argument that traffic would have improved simply because DOT created a new lane. Still, he says, if DOT had just added an extra lane without the toll lanes and congestion pricing, "there's a very good chance that volume would have gone up right there and filled it up," Santana said.
Scott and DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad want to expand the managed lanes program across the state. Prasad is seeking a public-private partnership to put new Express-style lanes on I-75 in Broward County, as well as adding a managed lane to Miami's Palmetto Expressway, according to an interview with the News Service of Florida.
A program overview for 95 Express shows Gov. Scott was about right when he said speeds for rush-hour traffic in non-toll lanes had improved from 25 mph to 45 mph. DOT's first study of the program shows traffic speeds during the peak periods were actually lower than 20 mph before the program. In 2010, traffic speeds during peak periods increased by 35 mph for southbound general lanes and by 22.5 mph in northbound general lanes. Still, Scott misidentified the program's location. We rate his claim Mostly True.
"Scott: Florida doesn't need more anthropology majors," St. Petersburg Times' The Buzz, Oct. 10, 2011
"Prasad: Now is the time to boost road building," News Service of Florida via WCTV.com, Aug. 9, 2011
Gov. Rick Scott interview, "The Marc Bernier Show" on WNDB-AM in Daytona Beach, archives accessed Oct. 11, 2011
"On talk radio, Scott finds an audience," St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 1, 2011
Phone interview with Brian Rick, Florida Department of Transportation District Six spokesman, Oct. 13, 2011
"95 Express: Pay more, get injured, wait in traffic," Miami New Times, Oct. 13, 2011
95 Express annual report, completed January 2011
Miami Herald archives
Gov. Rick Scott interview with Jack Harris and Tedd Webb, WFLA-AM 970, Oct. 17, 2011
Phone interview with Alicia Torrez, FDOT District 6 spokeswoman, Oct. 25, 2011
Phone conference with Rory Santana, project manager, and Greg Letts, Intelligent Transportation Systems engineer, Oct. 26, 2011
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