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I-4 toll lanes to share similarities, differences with Miami area

Driving video through Miami express lanes.
Driving video through Miami express lanes.

MIAMI – Working for a security alarm company, Perry O'Brien spends a lot of time crisscrossing the Miami area to meet with customers. Instead of sitting in traffic on Interstate 95 and Interstate 595, he often chooses to pay a toll to ride on the adjacent express lanes, a feature that will soon be coming to Interstate 4 in Central Florida.

[WEB EXTRAS: Driving video through Miami express lanes | Extended inteviews]

"Let's say I've got a project that's running late, and I need to get to the other side of town," said O'Brien. "It's a lot better paying a $1 toll, or a $2 toll, versus losing 20 or 30 minutes and possibly the entire deal."

Over the next six years, two express lanes will be constructed in each direction down the middle of I-4. The toll lanes are part of a $2.3 billion makeover of the interstate, which will also include reconstructed interchanges, 140 new or replaced bridges and aesthetic improvements along the 21-mile stretch from Kirkman Road in Orlando to State Road 434 in Longwood.

Like in South Florida, drivers approaching the entrances to I-4's express lanes will be greeted by overhead signs informing them of the current price of the toll, which is collected electronically using SunPass or E-Pass. The rate will fluctuate depending on the volume of traffic on the express lanes.

"You make a choice," said Charles Robbins, an engineer who manages the I-95 express lanes in Miami. "Do I want to pay the extra money and have a more reliable trip or do I want to stay in the non-toll, general use lanes?"

As Florida Department of Transportation workers monitor live video feeds of the area's roadways on giant screens inside Miami's Regional Transportation Management Center, computers measure the amount of traffic rolling along the interstates.

"We have detectors out in the field that, in real time, collect speed and volume within the express lanes," Robbins said.

As congestion on the express lanes grow, operators try to deter new drivers from getting on by raising the price of the toll. Every 15 minutes, a computer algorithm calculates a recommended toll rate to keep traffic moving at 45 mph.

"We see a shift in demand as the price increases," said Robbins.

When the tolls get too high, Carmen Arocho said she stays in the free lanes.

"For people like me, I think it's too expensive," said Arocho.  "And even if you could afford it, I think it's not worth it, because you're still stuck in traffic."

Even when the maximum toll rate of $10.50 is reached, too many drivers are still using the I-95 express lanes, occasionally causing traffic in those lanes to slow down.  In response, state officials have considered raising the maximum toll to $14.00 for the 7-mile stretch of road.

The I-95 express lanes can also get congested when there is a collision or a disabled vehicle, due in part to the way the roadway was designed. 

When the state launched the project 2008, existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) carpool lanes were converted into express lanes.  In most places, there is a single, 8-feet-wide shoulder on the far left of the express lanes, which is just slightly wider than most vehicles.  At times, cars stopped on the shoulder stick out into the express lanes, causing traffic backups.

Instead of converting existing lanes as was done in South Florida, the state is completely rebuilding I-4 to accommodate the addition.  The express lanes through Central Florida will have a wider, 10-foot shoulder on one side and a 4-foot shoulder on the other, which transportation officials believe will make it easier for traffic to flow past disabled vehicles.

In addition, the I-4 express lanes will be separated from the general use lanes by concrete barriers.  Along I-95, the lanes are divided with flexible plastic poles.  Many crashes have been caused by motorists driving over the plastic poles in a dangerous and illegal practice called "lane diving", according to state officials.

In most cases, drivers using I-4's express lanes will have the ability to leave the toll lane every two miles or less.  In areas where access points are farther than two miles apart, gates in the concrete barriers will allow emergency crews to reach the express lanes.

"The (I-95) project has been very well received from the public from the beginning," said Ivette Ruiz-Paz, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.  "Usage has steadily increased every year since it was implemented."

Prior to the installation of the express lanes along I-95, traffic was flowing at an average of 20 miles per hour, according to the state.  Now, traffic in the express lanes averages 53 miles per hour. 

The addition of express lanes has also sped up the flow of traffic by 15 miles per hour in the in the non-tolled general use lanes, state officials report.

"The benefits are for all the users of the facility, not just those who use the express lanes," said Ruiz-Paz.

"It works well here, but only in certain circumstances," said O'Brien, who uses the toll lanes while driving for work but chooses the free lanes when making more leisurely personal trips.  "As I preach to my customers, sometimes value is worth a little bit of extra cash."