Bill would allow higher speeds in Utah high-occupancy vehicle lanes
Transportation • Lawmaker believes perk could boost use in off-peak hours.
Published: January 19, 2012 07:51PM
Updated: April 5, 2012 11:37PM
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Scott Sommerdorf l Tribune file photo Traffic southbound on I-15 near 4500 South.

Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, wants to provide an incentive to persuade more people to carpool or pay tolls to use freeway express lanes: Let them drive up to 10 mph faster there.

So where the speed limit is 65 mph now in regular lanes, his bill would allow speeds of up to 75 mph in express lanes.

“They can go a little bit faster and not worry about getting a ticket,” said Sumsion, a candidate for governor, about provisions of HB264, which he is sponsoring for the upcoming session of the Legislature.

Sumsion said high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are now used at capacity only during rush hours. Encouraging people to move over to them in other hours — or even make better use of them at busy times — could, he believes, improve flow in all lanes.

Sumsion is among drivers who have a transponder in their cars to pay a toll to drive in HOV lanes without the required two or more people for free travel there. Tolls can be as cheap as 25 cents a segment when traffic is light. “But in the middle of the day, none of us are going to use our toll pass when we can drive fast in the other lanes for free,” he said.

“So this is some incentive for those with passes to pay a quarter and hop in the HOV lane and get more usage out of it,” said Sumsion. “I certainly hope that it might entice a few more people to carpool as well.”

He said it might even encourage some commuters to arrange work schedules where possible so that they could drive at times of light traffic and take advantage of faster speed limits in the HOV lanes.

Sumsion said the bill would allow the Utah Department of Transportation to set whatever higher speed limits it feels would be prudent in HOV lanes, up to 10 miles per hour faster than in surrounding lanes.

He said he has talked to UDOT about the idea. “They’re certainly OK with 70 miles per hour, and they are ‘uncomfortably OK’ with 75 mph,” he said.

UDOT spokeswoman Tania Mashburn confirmed that UDOT officials have been talking with Sumsion about the bill but said the agency has a neutral stance on it — as it does on almost all transportation bills.

“If it passes, we would have to go in and test standards and make sure it [a higher speed limit] is safe,” she said.

Sumsion said among concerns is a tendency for drivers in HOV lanes to “naturally slow down when traffic is heavy in other lanes. They worry a car from those other lanes could pop over the line in front of them, and they may not have time to handle that” — so he and officials are discussing how much of a difference in speed limits between lanes is safe.

A UDOT report to the Legislature in May 2011 about HOV usage said that during peak traffic hours, the lanes are faster, safer and carry more traffic than regular lanes.

They carry about 3,200 people per hour at key spots compared to 1,760 an hour in a regular lane in rush hours — mainly because express lanes have an average of 2.2 people per car, while other lanes average only 1.1 each.

HOV lanes also already average 10 mph faster than other lanes in rush hour. Despite faster speeds, only 0.5 percent of all accidents occur in express lanes along stretches that offer them, according to the earlier UDOT report — perhaps showing other reasons to travel in those lanes.

During peak hours, about two-thirds of the traffic in express lanes come from cars with two or more people. About 30 percent comes from single-rider cars paying tolls. About 4 percent comes from “clean fuel” vehicles, 2 percent from motorcycles and 1 percent from buses — all of which may use the lanes for free.

Fly-by-traffic pass

O For information about Utah’s express lanes or to sign up for a transponder that allows you to pay electronic tolls to use the lanes when you’re driving solo look online > www.udot.utah.gov/expresslanes

Or call 866-833-9824 or 801-887-3790, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.