By on July 13, 2010

With Chicago-area residents spending an average of 60 hours per year in traffic, and the city losing over $7b in lost productivity, wasted gas and environmental damage, Chicago is considering a version of congestion pricing that would charge drivers extra to use the left lane. According to, Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council studied

the Stevenson Expressway (Interstate 55) from I-355 to downtown Chicago; the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) from I-290/Illinois Highway 53 to Elgin; and the reversible lanes on the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94)

and recommended a fast lane toll to encourage responsible use of the freeways. The study suggested a $2.19 roll for inbound trips, but suggested that a variable toll based on time, trip, and traffic conditions could be imposed. The MPC figures $23m per year could be raised from such a toll on the Kennedy’s reversible lanes alone, and that money is needed for future road construction. But would you be willing to pay a little extra to be guaranteed a fast-moving left lane? Or is this just a revenue-raising “Lexus lane” that will benefit the rich and the city government and few others?

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29 Comments on “Ask The Best And Brightest: Would You Pay Extra To Drive In The Fast Lane?...”

  • avatar

    If enough people pay to use it, it won’t be the “fast lane” anymore.

  • avatar
    SVX pearlie

    We already have congestion-based pricing on California’s toll roads.

    During rush hour, you pay more.

  • avatar

    If a lane was actually fast, including the time it takes to pay for it, however that was arranged, then I would be willing to pay a surprising amount of money. The problem with the idea is that it never works out that way.

    • 0 avatar

      Payment would be electronic. IL already uses transponders to collect tolls on its tollways. I’m sure that the same hardware would be used for this, with no cash option (Don’t have an iPass? Use the local lanes, chump.) like on the tollways. Of course, your addl payment is with your privacy since your travel patterns are recorded. I suppose that market forces would determine how many people utilize the toll lanes, and thus how fast that they actually are.

    • 0 avatar

      Payment is preferably done by transponder, but some facilities are also going to use video detection for infrequent users, with a bill sent by mail. There is generally an additional charge for getting a bill this way.

  • avatar

    This would also help out the carpoolers, as they could pool their toll money and thus share the bill.

    If the tolls were adjusted continuously to balance supply with demand, the speed of traffic on the toll lanes could be held at a constant. That would greatly help with bus schedules.

    • 0 avatar
      bill h.

      The Lexi Lanes being built around the DC highways are called HOT Lanes (High Occupancy Toll). If you are a single driver alone in the car, you get charged a toll. If you have at least 3 people in the car, you can ride the lanes for free. At least that’s my understanding.

  • avatar

    This would work pretty well on the Kennedy with its’ limited access reversible lanes, but I don’t know how they can make it work on the other expressways. The Stevenson has several on ramps that merge from the left (really bad design), and how can they do variable congestion pricing unless they’re reading transponders? They can’t make everyone carry a transponder, and the cheaters will dodge in and out of the lane to avoid paying, making the feature less valuable.

    But all in all, I would be willing to pay a couple of bucks on my infrequent trips thru downtown in order to save time and aggravation if they can guarantee the savings somehow. I just wish that they would use the extra revenue to improve that mass transit you see running in between the lanes in that photo.

  • avatar

    It’s much easier to justify charging for usage of new construction, rather than just putting up tollbooths on existing lanes and instituting a new charge for them. Removing capacity for better access can definitely provide a new revenue stream, but it’s politically much more tricky than building new lanes, or even a new highway, to be used. It’s also easier to deal with the access control on new construction.

    The ‘Lexus Lanes’ argument is always trotted out, and it’s almost always just class warfare. People put a value on their time. Generally the amount you’d pay is less than the value of the time you’d save, that can be spent doing productive things. People also decide when they’re going to use them. Need to be at work on time for a meeting? Then pay for the lane. Not in a hurry? Don’t pay for it.

    Living in Maryland, I’m familiar with a new congestion-priced road that’s opening within the next year and a half, the Intercounty Connector. Their max tolling rate has been announced at 25 cents per mile, but my fear is that’s not even expensive enough to deter traffic if the Capitol Beltway is backed up.

    • 0 avatar

      I live in MD and drive a Lexus, but I wont use the Lexus Lanes – it’ll easily cost a few hundred bucks a month for daily commuters to use the $0.25/mile Inter County Connector (18 miles long). That’s despite the fact I drive over 100 miles/day commuting and spend 3-4 hours a day in traffic. The cost for regular use is simply too high. Of course, like you say, if some urgent issue arose that made the fee worth it, I would pay it.

      I totally agree class warfare is partly behind the passion many have for wanting the Govt to stick it to the non HOV drivers with high fees, not to mention the derisive “Lexus Lane” term. It is truly a shame so much resentment exists toward people who are successful, considering most successful people got that way by hard work.

  • avatar


  • avatar
    Dr. Nguyen Van Falk

    Sounds good to me. I take the L along the Kennedy Expy, spending my money on public transit to avoid the congestion or ride my bike. The interstate system’s cost is something that everyone should share, but those who use it most should bear the biggest cost. Seems fair to me. And if you’re dumb enough to waste that much time and gas in traffic, you should have a little extra added on top.

  • avatar
    Samuel L. Bronkowitz

    It’s just another tax… and like all other taxes, I’m sure to get very little for my “investment.”

  • avatar
    M 1

    Benefit “the rich”? Oh noes!!1! (Who do you suppose pays for the roads now? Tip: It isn’t your Proud, Noble Homeless Folk.)

  • avatar
    Anonymous Coward

    We’ve had those here near Seattle for about a year now. My biggest concern is that it’s really the camel’s nose in the tent for tolls. It’s a pilot program here. It was sold to the public as a test to see if it would work/help with traffic and raise money, as mentioned in the article above. But the highway on which the system is installed has three lanes each direction. Transponder readers were installed over the left TWO lanes, but only activated for one lane. Which means that somebody thought it was worthwhile to buy and install the hardware so that they could leave the public with only one free lane.

    They’re also called “HOT Lanes” for High Occupancy/Toll lanes. Which means that multiple occupancy vehicles can use them at no cost. Several times now I’ve seen a free user creeping along at or below the speed limit while those who value their time stack up behind them.

  • avatar

    This could work, but given what I know about Chicago area politics and road construction, I’m skeptical. The pricing needs to be right. Variable pricing is key, and that includes low to no charge when traffic isn’t moving over long stretches.

    @Anonymous Coward:
    Several times now I’ve seen a free user creeping along at or below the speed limit while those who value their time stack up behind them.

    The old Soviet Union had criminal statues entitled “parasitism”. Which proves the point that there are useful ideas everywhere if you look hard enough.

  • avatar

    Maybe. If you were allowed to drive, say, 10 over the regular speed limit, if there was no congestion and the people using it didn’t just drive 2-4 lanes abreast at the same speed, blocking traffic (like the usually do, at least in Cleveland), and maybe if they made sure it stayed clear enough that emergency vehicles could get through using the lane(s). But politics, road construction, and the general driving population being what they are, it’d likely just wind up being a mess.

  • avatar

    WOW, Ed!! You exposed whats the “bottom line” in whats wrong with Chicago transportation. See that picture with the I90 AND 94 sign?
    WE(Chicago, the Great Lakes, hell the whole northern half of the country got ripped-off for ONE measly 16-mile (probably $7Billion NOW) X-way that shoulda connected the end of the Skyway with the “Hillside strangler”. Other than 16? lane wide I75/85 in downtown Atlanta, I cant think of anywhere else TWO interstate routes are “siamesed” thru a major urban area. WE ALL need to pay.

    A quarter a gallon, $25 a barrel? Something. And tollroads have a tendency to turn into their own fiefdoms.

  • avatar

    The answer is a resounding yes. Many of us already pay for driving fast — speeding tickets and the resulting traffic school and/or insurance premium increases — and we don’t even get our own lane.

    But like others say, the toll road thing does not really work too well. Maybe California should at least increase the speed limit on toll roads. Heck, for all freeways. To at least 80mph.

    If California actually and effectively prohibits those with (1) suspended driver licenses, (2) expired vehicle licenses, and (3) no insurance, there would be much less traffic. I am always hearing statistics on how half the drivers on the road at any given time have no insurance. Please don’t flame me if that turns out to be propaganda by right wing conspiracists against illegal immigrants.

  • avatar

    Mr. Bronkowitz: the actual coinage out of your pocket for such a tax is miniscule…and this probably rankles you but EVERYONE enjoys the benefit. Ya know, the “society” is improved.
    Btw, you and I get plenty for our taxes. (We used to get more before Reagan…and the middle class was far more secure, but I digress.)

  • avatar

    If the lane really was a time saver, I would pay a reasonable fee. The technology end is pretty easy; if the Ezpass transponder indicated that you saved no time, there would be a quick way to have no toll charged for that day. But the people factor would be the problem. Where I drive we have HOV lanes that prohibit use with less than two people, and allow for entry/exit only where marked. However, many a-holes use the lanes with no passengers, and cross in and out with reckless abandon. How would you keep those who wish to take advantage of the fast lane but don’t want to pay? For the HOV lanes, the solution is easy. Right now the penalty is about $125 and two points. Too many people think that this “penalty” is just the price of admission. To eliminate that mentality, a $500 penalty and a 5 point slap on the license might be the ticket. I guess you could apply the same to the fast lane…and Yuppie, problems 1,2, and 3 could be reduced drastically if there was a serious cash penalty. Can’t pay? There’s a mandatory jail stay waiting for you…

    • 0 avatar

      In the Northern VA area, HOV violations can result in a $500 or $1000 fine. I think it’s outrageous to have such high penalties for petty crimes (insufficient passengers), not to mention the comparatively low penalties for running lights, DUI, etc. I personally like the illegal HOV lane users – the more of them there are, the less cars I have to wait behind in the regular lanes.

  • avatar

    I wonder about the logistics of this. The high speed lanes would have to be completely separated from the normal use lanes if the billing was done via transponder. I don’t think the EZ-pass high speed toll things are sensitive enough to only detect cars going directly underneath and not cars in the adjacent non-divided lane. How long would it take for the tolls from this to pay for widening the road to accommodate the barriers necessary to get this system rolling?

    All in all, I don’t like the idea. It’s one step closer to London’s awful congestion tax. I don’t like toll roads in general, and one of the positive things about no longer living in the northeast is no longer having to deal with them very often. I already pay tax on my gas to support the road network, it isn’t my fault that the DOT is so mismanaged that they can’t keep the system running on the millions of dollars they have rolling in from that. You shouldn’t have to pay to use a road.

  • avatar

    The above statement isn’t completely in-tune with the current technology. The E-ZPass transponders are accurate enough to read which lane you’re in when you’re driving. Someone mentioned above that the antenna readers (they look like pizza boxes) were put over the free lanes as well as the toll lanes. This is typically done so the system software can get two readingd from your transponder as you drive under the antennas. the signal strength between the two antennas is compared and the software can figure out whether you’re in a toll lane or a free lane from that data. Pretty standard stuff these days.

    I’ve always liked the idea of elective toll lanes. They are truly democracy in action; it’s a tax you can vote for with your wallet by using or not using it. Don’t want to pay for a better road system? then don’t use the better road system, use the one you already have. want to pay extra for a premium service? then take the toll lane.

    Paying a premium for an expedited government service is nothing new. You can pay extra to have your passport renewed, and toll roads/bridges – which are the exact same thing – have been around since Ben Franklin.

    Here’s something else to consider: when you have a major road that is ALL tollled, you need human toll collectors to make change for the people who don’t have transponders. When you have a major road that goes either way, you don’t need toll collectors becuase if you don’t have a transponder, you just get shunted to the slow lanes. Employing toll collectors and operating toll plazas can consume 60% or more of the road’s toll revenue stream. You’re paying toll collectors to take money from you. Get rid of the toll collectors and the tolls can be otherwise reduced and the tolling agency extracts the same revenue for maintaining and ubgrading the roadway.

    • 0 avatar
      Anonymous Coward

      Actually, you can have a road that’s all tolled without any tollbooth operators. Melbourne Australia uses such a system. There’s a system of transponder receivers and cameras over each lane* where the tollbooth would be. If you’re a local and have a transponder, it works just like easy pass. If you don’t have a transponder, the system will record your license plate and calculate your toll for you. You then have something like 3 days to go to the tolling authority’s website and pay your toll. If you miss that window, they’ll send a bill (including an added service fee) to the address of the vehicle’s registered owner.

      *Including the shoulders. You can’t free load by driving through the picture booth in the shoulder.

    • 0 avatar

      Sundowner – Thanks for the info, I didn’t even think about putting the sensors above all of the lanes, that makes sense.

      As far as tollbooth operators, there are plenty of minor tolls throughout the country where you have to throw change into a little funnel, why not use those and vending machine style bill slots instead of toll collectors? You could have some cameras to catch people vandalizing the machines, and employ a couple techs to cover the road network and keep everything humming along for a lot less than paying six to ten people per toll junction to stand in booths and collect money all day.

  • avatar

    I know that if you come up from downtown to the north you already have a free alternative which is (almost?) as fast as 94 — Route 41 which you can take from the near north suburbs all the way up into wisconsin. It runs parallel to 94/294.

    Right now the spur is under construction so you have a ~35K? 55k? cars/day are following 94 into the merge with 294 (294 ends) with 1 lane. Seriously. That stretch should take no longer than 3-4 minutes and I know that at 3:30pm or so it can now be 10-15 minutes. I don’t travel during rush hour so I can’t tell you the time it would take then….

    IMHO, travelling during non-rush if they made the left lane free (say up until 5:30am or something) I’d be all for it as it really doesn’t affect me. I’d be willing to pay on the way home if 41 was blocked up (not uncommon for parts of 41 to flood during heavy rain) and 94 was under construction. Otherwise I would just take the free route (41) or the normal toll route for $0.50/$1 (94).

  • avatar

    This is a horrible idea. The 91 Freeway in Orange County to the Riverside County border (in Southern California) has this. There are four free lanes and two paid lanes (3+ carpools are free or lower priced depending on the time of the day). To use the paid lanes, you must have a transponder (no tollbooth), including free carpools. So what happens is the toll lanes move freely and the free lanes are a complete parking lot. But, once you hit the Riverside County line, the two paid lanes turn into one carpool lane and one free lane-and the back up goes completely away. Had the two paid lanes been free lanes, all six lanes of traffic would be freeflowing. The increase in pollution alone (in an area that can’t afford such) is enough that this is a horrible idea.

  • avatar

    Yes, I would pay more to drive in express lanes in Chicago. It would save two hours of my life every working day. Instead of watching my life slowly end behind the wheel of a Saturn, I could be home or at work – you know – be productive!

    This thing works. DO IT!

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