The managed toll lanes that have become a fixture on many North Texas highways could pave the way for autonomous vehicles and other smart technology that taps the fast-growing Internet of Things.
Officially, they’re called TEXpress Lanes but critics jokingly call them Lexus Lanes because they give people the means to pay their way out of congestion. The lanes guarantee a minimum speed of 50 mph and operators adjust the toll based on traffic levels.
There are about 70 miles of TEXpress Lanes in North Texas right now, with the majority of them collecting tolls, according to the TEXpress website. Some are partially open while others are under construction, expected to open in the next year.
And more of the so-called TEXpress Lanes will be built in the next several years, transportation planners say.
Highway corridors that get the TEXpress Lane makeover are built faster because the design, bidding and construction are done simultaneously. The LBJ Express, North Tarrant Express and DFW Connector have been operating for years, giving transportation planners a mountain of data on driving habits.
The goal is to build a seamless network of managed toll lanes that give drivers a choice whether they want to pay a toll to avoid congestion, said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
The average user is paying about $10 a month in tolls.
Truckers and delivery companies use the TEXpress Lanes to get to their destination quicker. By nature, they’re meant for through traffic because they have fewer entrances and exits, said Robert Hinkle, a spokesman for NTE Mobility Partners and LBJ Infrastructure Group, the companies that operate and manage both projects.
“Those managed lanes are capturing a whole lot of people who are just trying to get through the corridor,” Hinkle said. “They don’t have any reason to stop. They factor in the cost of the toll and how much time they save by having a minimum speed of 50 mph.”
LBJ Infrastructure Partners and NTE Mobility Partners are owned by Cintra North America, based in Austin. The parent company is Ferrovial, based in Madrid, Spain.
Only about 15 percent of the vehicles using the TEXpress Lanes on the LBJ Express and the NT Express are luxury brands, the most common are Toyota, Ford and Honda, according to the operators of those highway systems.
Data also shows more than 4 million different vehicles have used the lanes and that 36 percent of the users each month have never used it before.
Where are they going next?
Right now, the biggest highway overhaul is occurring on the Midtown Express on Highway 183, Highway 114 and Loop 12 in Euless, Irving and Dallas.
The project includes a new junction near the former Texas Stadium site that will offer direct connections to the three highways.
TEXpress Lanes are scheduled to open this fall on Highway 114 from Highway 121 to Rochelle Road/Riverside Drive. The toll lanes will open on the rest of the project by the end of 2018. When completed, drivers could potentially drive from Southlake to Dallas or from Dallas to Fort Worth entirely on the TEXpress Lanes.
And more toll lanes are planned in the future.
Construction could start by mid-2019 to make improvements to I-635 from U.S. Highway 75 to Interstate 30 in Mesquite. The Regional Transportation Council has approved adding TEXpress Lanes from U.S. Highway 75 to Miller Road. Morris said the RTC will consider extending the managed lanes all the way to I-30.
This will require additional public input, environmental review and an update to the regional mobility plan.
The next generation of technology
The days of waiting in lines and digging for change at the toll booth are long gone. The advent of new toll tag sensors and license-plate reading technology has made the TEXpress Lanes seamless for everyone, even vehicles that don’t have North Texas Tollway Authority tags.
There’s also a TEXpress app where users can sign up for high-occupancy vehicle discounts before their trip. But that’s just a harbinger of things to come.
Next year, new sensing technology could make it possible for TEXpress Lanes to automatically know whether there’s more than one occupant in a vehicle.
“You automatically get charged the HOV rate instead of the full rate,” said Dan Lamers, senior program manager for the NCTCOG.
Other technology that’s in the works will tie into Google Maps and the Waze Traffic app to give drivers real-time information on whether to take the TEXpress Lanes or just stay in the free lanes. Currently, the toll prices aren’t available in real time anywhere except the digital message boards on the highway.
The goal is to give drivers the cost and the time it would potentially save on the traffic apps.
Autonomous vehicle lanes
Someday, the TEXpress Lanes could be the test track for convoys of autonomous vehicles all communicating with each other, Morris said.
He envisions autonomous big rigs traveling in unison in the middle of the night so they aren’t traveling through the Metroplex during peak hours.
Right now, a stretch of highway can handle about 2,300 vehicles per lane, per hour. Autonomous vehicles could potentially travel at faster speeds much closer together, increasing the capacity to 4,000 vehicles per lane per hour.
“Autonomous vehicles want to talk to each other, that’s the key” Morris said. “We would create incentives for them to be on managed lanes.”
It could take decades for the entire vehicle fleet to become autonomous. Not to mention government policy and regulations have to catch up. But having isolated TEXpress Lanes where the vehicles can drive puts North Texas ahead of other regions in the country, Morris said.
The TEXpress Lanes could also offer incentives for express buses to use those lanes with a guarantee that passengers arrive on time.
“We’ll pay their fare if they don’t make it on time,” Morris said. “Who else is doing that in the U.S. besides us?”