Express lanes on Interstate 95 one day are supposed to let drivers pay a toll to avoid traffic congestion from Miami to Boca Raton.
But the Palm Beach County portion of the project isn’t happening as quickly as state transportation officials would like. As of now, construction would start no sooner than 2019, which would open two toll lanes from the Broward County line to Linton Boulevard by 2022.
“That isn’t really good enough. We need to do better than 2019,’’ DOT Regional Secretary James Wolfe recently told Palm Beach County officials.
Wolfe said his office was “scrambling in the last six months” to get money to start the work in 2016, “but the money didn’t quite come together.’’ He said they will keep trying to make it happen sooner.
The southern Palm Beach County plan calls for building an additional lane and converting an existing High Occupancy Vehicle lane so there are two express toll lanes in each direction from Atlantic Boulevard in northern Broward to Linton Boulevard in Delray Beach. There’s no money earmarked or cost estimates for that yet.
“I think that dialogue is going to continue in the next year — how quickly can we get those express lanes into southern Palm Beach County? I’ll bet you this time next year we will have a better answer than begin the work in 2019,’’ Wolfe told the Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Organization on Dec. 9.
But Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche, who sits on the MPO board, isn’t convinced express lanes are needed. And he questioned the idea of “taking concrete away from people who don’t want to pay tolls.’’
“It seems like they’re pretty free-flowing already. I’m just wondering if we are having a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist,’’ Valeche said.
Wolfe replied, “It needs that construction. There is congestion very high in northern Broward and southern Palm Beach.”
Nearly 100,000 more daily trips by 2040
In 2011, the most recent year for which DOT numbers are available, there were about 290,000 daily vehicle trips on I-95 between Broward Boulevard and Oakland Park Boulevard in Broward County and 210,000 trips between Oakland Park Boulevard in northern Broward and Glades Road in Boca Raton.
The DOT projects that by 2040, the Broward-Oakland Park traffic will increase to about 370,000 and the Oakland Park-Glades traffic will grow to 270,000.
The DOT’s numbers for daily vehicle trips on I-95 segments wholly in Palm Beach County are:
— Glades Road to Yamato Road: 190,500 in 2011; 278,000 projected in 2040.
— Yamato to Congress Avenue: 173,000 in 2011; 280,000 projected in 2040.
— Congress to Linton Boulevard: 188,500 in 2011, 279,000 projected in 2040.
Toll lanes are designed to help improve traffic flow, allowing vehicles to enter the lanes on the far left-hand side of the highway. Once vehicles enter, they are separated from regular traffic lanes by barriers of flexible plastic poles.
Tolls are collected electronically using a SunPass transponder, which can be purchased at Publix, CVS Pharmacies or Turnpike service plazas.
Tolls are based on congestion pricing, meaning the toll goes up or down depending on how many vehicles enter the lanes at a time. The busier the road, the higher the toll.
The amounts, which can vary from 25 cents to as much as $7 an hour, fluctuate to keep the express lanes from becoming too congested. If travel speeds in the express lanes start to slow, the toll amount will increase to deter more vehicles from entering and promote a quicker recovery to free flow conditions.
Toll amounts are displayed on overhead electronic signs before each of the entrances.
Program shows results in Miami-Dade County
The DOT launched the “95 Express” program in 2008 to help ease traffic on I-95 in Miami-Dade County, where, Wolfe said, “The formula has proven to be very popular. … Even if you don’t pay a toll, you’ll be better off if there are express lanes.’’
According to a DOT report, average daily volume on the express toll lanes in Miami-Dade County during peak periods last year was over 9,000 vehicles – an average of 33 percent of the total traffic on the highway.
The toll lanes’ average rush-hour speeds were 63 mph and 56 mph, respectively, in the southbound and northbound toll lanes. By comparison, the average rush-hour speed in the HOV lane before 95 Express started was 20 mph. DOT officials explain that HOV lanes are often under-used in peak hours because of a limited number of cars with more than one occupant.
The toll lanes also have helped ease congestion in the general purpose lanes, according to the report. Average peak rush-hour speeds increased from a monthly average of 15 mph southbound and 20 mph northbound before the 95 Express program started to a monthly average of 50 mph southbound and 42 mph northbound in 2012.
Miami-Dade County has four general purpose lanes and two toll lanes, and construction is under way to extend the toll lanes north into Broward County by the fall of 2014. Interstate 595 will have toll lanes in March, Wolfe said.
The construction from the Golden Glades Interchange in Miami-Dade to Broward Boulevard will cost $106 million. The next phase, from Broward Boulevard to Atlantic Boulevard in Broward, is estimated to cost $145 million.
The interstate in south Palm Beach County has three general purposes lanes and one HOV lane in each direction, meaning it eventually will have three general purpose lanes and two toll lanes. The HOV lanes would be eliminated in each direction when the toll lanes are added.
“That network is expanding,” Wolfe said. “It’s going to be coming here.”