What the Katy Managed Lanes tell us about the NHHIP 45N expansion project

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Tory

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Nov 1, 2021, 6:38:42 PM11/1/21
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As always, Google Groups strips out the great graphics and formatting in this post - please read it online here.
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This week we have a great guest post on the effectiveness of managed lanes and why they're so critical to the 45N expansion plan from Oscar Slotboom, author of Houston Freeways. (highlights mine)
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Managed lanes are one of the more controversial features in the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. The current HOV lane uses 25 feet of width in the center of the existing freeway where there are no interior shoulders, and 41 feet of width where there are interior shoulders. In the NHHIP design, the managed lanes require 82 feet and the interior shoulders (with pylons) require 25 feet, for a total of 107 feet. So the extra width required for the managed lanes is 66 to 82 feet, which is about 37% of the needed new right-of-way north of Loop 610. The rest of the needed right-of-way is for buffers outside the frontage roads (27 feet on each side), wider frontage roads including a 15-foot-wide shared lane, more space between the main lanes and frontage roads, and auxiliary (merging) lanes for the main lanes.

The City of Houston proposal, which is endorsed by Harris County, would remove the managed lanes entirely and also remove the existing reversible HOV lane. Other opposition groups want more public transit emphasis and no right-of-way acquisition which would eliminate the managed lanes.

Of course, we already have a managed lane facility in Houston, the Katy Managed Lanes. Let's take a closer look at its performance, before and after Covid. Data sources: Metro and HCTRA.

Attention NNHIP Opposition: Managed lanes have demonstrated substantial transit ridership
In 2019, prior to Covid, Metro's bus routes using the Katy Managed Lanes served 9,105 weekday public transit trips, more than the $756 million Red Line north extension and the Green or Purple Lines, which together cost $1.4 billion. The original Red Line, which has strong ridership, had 42,385 weekday trips.

HOV and Ridesharing provide even more SOV reduction
Metro bus service is only part of the reduction in single-occupant vehicles provided by managed lanes. The main purpose of the Katy Managed Lanes, which require only 2 persons per vehicle for free use, is to promote carpooling and ridesharing. In contrast, most managed lanes facilities require 3+ occupancy for free use, and privately owned managed lanes are operated to maximimize toll revenue. While there is no readily-available data for HOV traffic count, Metro's 2018 Highlights publication (p.28) states the following
"METRO provided 7.7 million Park & Ride commuter bus rides in 2017"
For all HOV/HOT lanes except the Katy Freeway managed lanes (which is operated by HCTRA), Metro reports
"An additional 25.4 million people used HOV/HOT lanes operated by Metro in 2017."
Even excluding the heavily-used Katy managed lanes, the ratio of HOV/HOT users to bus riders is 3.3 to 1. There's no information on the number of HOV vs. HOT vehicles, but the pre-covid Katy Managed Lanes bus ridership of 9,105 trips per day probably translates to HOV trips of at least 20,000 per weekday, which (assuming 2-person HOV) was taking at least 10,000 SOVs off the road.
Managed lanes serve vanpools, and Metro reports (for all its HOV lanes)
"METRO facilitated 2 million vanpool rides and more than 700 active vanpools in 2017."
The 2018 report also states
"HOV/HOT lanes maximize the utility and value of existing freeway lanes by allowing riders and vehicles to move faster and bypass heavy traffic."
That statement should put a smile on Tory's face, since his brand name for managed lanes is MaX lanes(editor's note: It does! :-)
Impact of Covid
Metro's overall ridership dropped by around 55% for most months since April 2020. Park & ride customers are not transit dependent, so they could switch to their cars for safety, and they are mostly professional so many or most could work from home. Consequently, park & ride service was hit much worse, with Katy corridor ridership down around 88%.
Metro's downtown routes (221, 222, 228, 229) were down 95% in the year after Covid hit (excluding the uptick in recent months). However, ridership on Metro route 298, which provides service to the Texas Medical Center, was down only 53%, which is consistent with the overall loss in Metro ridership. Assuming route 298 riders don't have the option to work from home, this suggests that (95-53)/95 = 44% of the downtown route ridership loss was due to working from home. Of course, folks working from home will no longer be Metro customers in the future. Recovering these riders will depend on how many continue to work from home.

Revenue Generation
In 2019, the Katy Managed lanes generated $20.7 million in toll revenue, below its 2018 peak of $22.5 million. We can expect a rebound from the 2020 value of $8.9 million, but it may take years to get back to $20 million.
Managed lane toll revenue is low by HCTRA toll road standards, as HCTRA collected $855 million in toll revenue in 2019. The adjacent section of the Sam Houston Tollway to the south (to the Southwest Freeway) generated $116 million and the section to the north (to the Northwest Freeway) generated $98 million.
However, $21 million is substantial in the context of Metro's systemwide total farebox revenue, which was flat between 2013 and 2019 in the range of $72 million to $76 million, and was $75 million in 2019. Farebox collections for FY 2020, which ended in September with only 6 months affected by Covid, dropped to $43 million. Just completed FY 2021 (no data available yet) was fully affected by covid and will be much lower.
Metro's park & ride bus service also generates substantial farebox revenue due to its high fares. In the 15 months prior to Covid, the Grand Parkway endpoint was the most-used park & ride lot in the Metro system, averaging 2,977 daily trips. The fare for Grand Parkway service is $4.50, compared to $1.25 for regular service, which is diluted by discounts. Using an average fare of $4.25 for Metro park & ride service using the Katy Managed Lanes, we can estimate those routes generated 9105*52*5*4.25= $10.0 million in fares, which is 13% of 2019 Metro systemwide total farebox revenue. Adding together the toll and farebox revenue is $30.7 million, which is 41% of Metro's systemwide total farebox revenue.

dollar values in millions
2019
Toll Revenue
$20.7
Bus Fares (estimated)
$10.0
Katy Managed Lanes Total
$30.7
Metro 2019 systemwide farebox revenue
$75.3
Katy Managed Lanes revenue, percent of Metro systemwide farebox total
41%
Managed Lanes: more services provided = less risk of obsolescence
Suppose rail transit had been built instead of the managed lanes along the Katy Corridor. Rail would serve only commuters using public transit, and demand for that service was down 88%. Of course there will be a recovery, and there has been an uptick in recent months, but it remains to be seen how much of the lost ridership can be recovered. Due to work from home, demand for commuter transit will likely be suppressed indefinitely.
In today's money, rail infrastructure for the 19 miles from the Northwest Transit center at Loop 610 to the Grand Parkway would cost at least $1 billion for commuter-style trains, and at least $2 billion for light-rail style service. (Of course, the trains would have terminated at the Northwest transit center and required a transfer, which would lower ridership.) With the dramatic drop in commuter ridership, rail infrastructure would now be a very expensive and very underutilized asset.
Managed lanes provide multiple services, including ridersharing, vanpools, and express toll service. This lowers the risk of the investment. While these services were also down (toll revenue was down 57%), these services continued to be served, with toll users at a much higher level than commuter bus.
This underscores another major benefit of flexible, adaptable, and less expensive managed lanes. If consumer preferences shift, the lanes can easily adapt and won't become a costly "white elephant".
Managed Lanes: a crucial feature of NHHIP
To summarize
  • Pre-covid, the Katy Managed Lanes demonstrated strong transit ridership, higher than much more expensive recent light rail expansions.
  • Pre-covid, the Katy Managed Lanes demonstrated strong revenue generation, both tolls and bus farebox.
  • Ridesharing on managed lanes provides substantial SOV reduction, probably exceeding pre-covid transit.
  • With the onset of covid and the collapse of demand for commuter transit service, the Katy Managed Lanes continued to provide multiple services, underscoring its adaptability to shifting needs.
Managed lanes are the most important feature of NHHIP north of downtown, providing an adaptable transportation asset that will serve Houston's future needs, whatever they may be: bus rapid transit, commuter bus, HOV, vanpool, technologies of the future such as automated vehicles and potentially toll service. (Current plans don't include tolls, but would optimize the lanes for transit and ridesharing.)
Strong performance, low cost, and adaptability are reasons why Tory and I support the NHHIP managed lanes and are advocates of a managed lane network for Houston, as described in the MaX lanes report and as proposed in the TxDOT REAL plan.
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