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Clearing traffic jams will cost drivers

Published:Sunday | June 28, 2015 | 6:00 AM
Heavy traffic in Los Angeles, California.

LOS ANGELES (AP)

Fewer of tomorrow's freeways will be free. In exchange, drivers willing and able to pay will avoid the traffic congestion that bedevils everyone else.

Toll lanes are an increasingly common solution in metropolitan regions with limited public space or money to widen highways. One increasingly popular idea is to convert carpool lanes to let solo drivers pay for a faster ride. In the future, non-carpool lanes might also be tolled.

That's just one approach transportation planners are taking as they try to ease the nation's deepening traffic congestion. With little hope that the federal government will splurge on enough new construction to reverse traffic trends, the goal is to squeeze as much efficiency as possible out of current highways.

Other possibilities are more complex and would take longer. They include substituting the federal gas tax for a charge on each mile driven, adopting technology that will let vehicles communicate with each other and the roads and developing self-driving cars that could speed along with just the smallest of gaps between them.

Perhaps the most ambitious highway-conversion plan is in the San Francisco Bay Area, where hills and the namesake body of water are natural barriers to mobility. Regional transportation planners are sketching out a future network of 550 miles of toll lanes on existing highways that should give paying drivers a reliably faster commute, whether they drive alone or carpool.

CONVERTINGLANES

The concept in counties east and south of San Francisco is to convert carpool lanes to so-called 'high-occupancy toll' lanes that solo drivers could use if they have a transponder that tracks their mileage and bills them accordingly.

In the future, the project could turn freeway lanes

that don't now require carpooling into toll lanes, said Melanie Crotty, director of Operations at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees planning in the nine-county region. Converting 'general purpose' lanes into toll lanes would require a change in state law (and presumably face public opposition), but the option is real.