I-15 express lane tolls likely to double soon, but quadruple charges may not be far behind

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) UHP Lt. Danny Allen looks for cars illegally using the HOV lanes along I-15 in Salt Lake Valley Oct. 6, 2016. This van going by only had one passenger and didn't trigger the transponder reader that indicates an express pass. It also had a CNG sticker that used to grant access to HOV lanes in the past but not necessarily now unless it's registered. Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Highway Patrol are partnering and launching an enforcement blitz to educate drivers how to correctly use the express lanes. Utah's Express Lanes are the longest continuous in the country stretching 72 miles from Layton to Spanish Fork.

The maximum flexible toll for Interstate 15 express lanes will likely double, from $1 to $2, but legislators are considering allowing perhaps even quadrupling them to $4 if the $2 change does not solve worsening rush-hour congestion in the lanes.

The express-lane increase is among fee changes proposed by the Utah Department of Transportation to the Legislature, and included in HB8, an annual budget bill to approve all state agency fees.

“We’re required by federal law to maintain a 45 mph” average speed in the express lanes, which are built to encourage carpooling with higher speeds and smoother sailing, said UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras. “We’re not quite doing that.”

In fact, UDOT studies show that average speeds in those lanes have dropped to just 31 mph during peak drive times in Salt Lake County, in part because so many toll-paying drivers are crowding into them.

Those lanes are free to carpoolers, but single-passenger cars may use them by paying an electronic toll. That toll varies according to congestion, from a minimum of 25 cents to a maximum of $1 for a 10-mile-or-so section. More than 20,000 people have set up electronic toll accounts, but about 16,000 are active users.

UDOT earlier this year persuaded the Utah Transportation Commission to approve moving the maximum toll from $1 to $2 — if the Legislature concurs — to reduce congestion in the lanes.

Commission members, though, openly doubted whether even doubling the toll would reduce congestion much, and pushed UDOT to go to a maximum of $3, $4 or even higher.

Braceras said the commission and UDOT struck a compromise. They will seek legislative permission for a toll of up to $4, but initially will impose no more than $2.

“It won’t rise above $2 without commission approval and public process. But this gives us a cap to work with, to be more responsive to the traffic,” Braceras said.

Fees approved by the Legislature will not take effect until May 8 — and Braceras expects the first jump to a $2 maximum toll to be imposed soon afterward. UDOT plans to publicize it before the tolls rise.

Express-lane tolls on I-15 now work out to about 10 cents per mile on average, and would double to 20 cents. That is far less than in other Western states, where UDOT figures the average is 87 cents a mile.

One example cited was $1.10 a mile on California’s interstates 10 and 110.

UDOT has said it has also pursued other methods to reduce congestion in the express lanes, including conducting occasional law-enforcement blitzes to ticket violaters. Past studies by UDOT consistently found that about one of every five cars was there illegally.

Also, UDOT placed a cap of 6,650 decals for purchase by owners of clean-fuel, single-passenger cars to permit travel in the express lanes. UDOT has already hit that limit — and has a waiting list of more than 1,000 people.