Florida highways' express lanes drive controversy

- Our state government is expanding express lanes across the state, following a model Florida launched in the Miami area along Interstate 95. Our state transportation leaders say express lanes are the future of transportation, because they improve traffic flow. However, the I-95 express lane project has drawn mixed reviews and controversy in South Florida. 

First, much of the frustration drivers face with express lane traffic comes down to cost. The lanes charge 'congestion pricing,' meaning they charge more when traffic slows down.

With congestion pricing, drivers may think they pay a premium to dodge the jam in the other lanes. However, many drivers don’t realize the price shoots up because the express lane is jammed to try to discourage more drivers from using it when it’s crowded.

The Tampa Bay area’s first express lane along the Veterans Expressway has already clogged at times during rush hour, appearing to move slower than the remaining lanes, even before Florida’s Turnpike is charging more to drive on it.

Mark Wallace is a Tampa roofer who says he's already paying around $3,000 a year in tolls. He does not want a toll lane within an existing tollway.  

"They’re actually going with three lanes with a slow lane as an express lane,” he exclaimed. "Waste of time, waste of real estate. Just wasted!”

In the Miami area, drivers have also raised concerns about safety. Drivers known as ‘lane divers' plunge through plastic barriers to lurch into the express lanes when they’re moving, or lurch out of them when they’re not.

State lawmakers who have tried to ban express lanes claim there have been 12,000 crashes in three years in Miami Dade express lanes. Cynthia Fleischmann was one of the victims. A lane-diver plunged through the barrier into her, causing her to lose one of her legs.

"It's an invitation for cars to come through them," she said.

James Wolfe, the state's transportation secretary in South Florida, said the state has since made improvements in safety, including additional and studier poles to separate the express lane from the non-tolled lanes on I-95. FDOT stats show that has reduced the number of lane-divers. Tampa's new express lane along the Veterans Expressway is using the same upgrades.

“We design roads as safely as we can and react to conditions and make them safer," said Wolfe. “We’re always trying to make things safer… Anyone who takes issue with those lanes and don't think it's a value to them should take the alternative.”

In terms of value, Wolfe says his data shows -- when you add express lanes -- on average all lanes move faster, even though critics do not see it.

Consumer watchdog Carlos Garcia, who runs RollBackTolls.com, has also raised concerns about the costs to working-class families -- particularly on I-95 where taxpayers have already paid to build the lane that now carries a toll. Garcia says these tolls are regressive because they take the heaviest toll on the common man.

“Where the workforce housing is, is usually the farther points out, and this is a concern for a lot of people," he added.

On the Veterans Expressway, Florida’s Turnpike has not yet established what the maximum toll for the express lane will be. The goal is to relieve congestion, and even with rush-hour hiccups, Florida’s Turnpike said cars, on average, do move a little faster in the Veterans express lane.

The first phase of the Veterans' express lane opened in December. The state expects to charge between 50 cents to $2 during rush hour.

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