Tel Aviv toll road starting to win over skeptics

By RON FRIEDMAN
January 21, 2011 01:53

HOT-lane functioning at nearly 80 percent of capacity ; similar projects planned for other TA entrances.




HOT lane

TA toll road 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Two weeks after the opening of the toll lane leading into Tel Aviv from the Ben Gurion airport area, the benefits of the initially unpopular project are beginning to become apparent, its operators say.

After a disastrous first day – when commuters saw the customary rush hour traffic jam at the entrance to the city extend for kilometers longer than usual – regular use and gradual increases in volume have quieted much of the criticism.

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“We’re still not where we want to be in terms of use, but I believe that in a number of weeks we’ll reach capacity, and then the real value will come to light,” said Nitzan Yotzer, head of the High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lane Administration.

The HOT-lane represents a curious hybrid of socialist goals, being reached using capitalist methods.

The lane stretches for 13 kilometers from east to west along Highway 1 (from Ben Gurion interchange to the entrance to Tel Aviv), alongside what is one of the country’s most congested morning rush hours.

The goal of the project is to allow more people to enter the metropolitan area in fewer vehicles.

HOT-lanes’ designers believe that by providing incentives to increase use of high occupancy vehicles, fewer smaller vehicles will enter the city. The desired result will be less pollution, parking difficulties, accidents and traffic.

The new lane was built and is operated by Shafir Engineering, a private company given license to operate the toll road for 30 years before handing it over to the state.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Harel Hanin, director of operation of the HOT-lane, explained the various options available to the public.

“The first and most straightforward method of use is simply registering to use the service, and driving down the designated lane until you reach the entrance to the city,” Hanin said.

“The price for this use is currently six shekels, but as volume increases, the price will go up.”

One of the unique features of the HOT-lane is its fluctuating fare system.

The system measures the volume of traffic on the highway, then adjusts fares for the HOT-lane accordingly: the higher the volume, the higher the price.

The reasoning for this is that to ensure a minimum travel speed of 70 kilometers per hour for users of the HOT-lane, the operators have to make sure that too many vehicles don’t enter the lane.

Their method of curbing this is increasing the price, thus reducing the incentive to use the road. It is anticipated that during morning rush hour, the price may go up to NIS 25 per vehicle.

“Once registered, the system connects a vehicle’s license plate to the owners’ credit card, and the bills are sent automatically to the customer,” Hanin said. “Registration is quick and updated in real-time and can be done in person, over the phone or on our website. People can also pay for a single use of the lane, by driving through a toll booth.”

Drivers are advised of the current rate at any given time by digital signs posted before the entrance to the lane.

Buses, taxis, and vehicles carrying multiple passengers are allowed to use the road free of charge.

“Another method of taking advantage of the HOT-lane is by carpooling” Hanin added. “Vehicles carrying four passengers [in offpeak hours three passengers] are given free entrance once the number of people in the car is verified.

In order to take advantage of this option, drivers are required to drive through our toll booth, located near the Shafirim interchange, where they are counted by one of our staff members after which they are free to access the lane.”

Hanin explained that while the counting process took two or three minutes, and extended the overall time it takes to enter the city, it was still faster than standing in traffic.

A third option is to take advantage of the HOT-lane’s free shuttle service.

Drivers interested in choosing this option can leave their car at a park-and-go facility at Shafirim and use complimentary shuttle services into Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan.

“The shuttles leave every five minutes during rush hour, and every 15 minutes afterwards, and carry passengers stopping at six major destination in either city,” Hanin said.

“People are most surprised when they hear that this service is completely free of charge and does not even require advanced registration,” he added. “The saving in gas, parking and aggravation is potentially huge.

People can save the hassle of being in Tel Aviv with a vehicle, and even enjoy a cup of coffee while they wait for the next shuttle to leave.

“Our whole operation here is targeted towards keeping the lane free to carry vehicles,” he continued. “We monitor the road 24 hours a day with video cameras to make sure there are no obstructions, we have sensors that tell us immediately if travel speed decreases, and we make sure the shuttles leave on time – empty or full – to ensure that people don’t wait for more than the designated time, either on the way in to the city or on the way out. It seems bizarre to many Israelis, but we are trying to set a standard for efficient service.”

It’s impossible to determine the precise benefit the new lane has created because the numbers are not made public. However, according to Yotzer, who runs the state authority providing oversight for the project, after two weeks of operations the signs are good.

“Today the lane is operating at nearly 80 percent of its capacity,” Yotzer said. “Shortly we will start putting into effect the differential pricing system and then we will really see the whole picture. I can tell you now that the HOT-lane already carries more people than any one highway lane, so that in a way it has already justified itself.”

Yotzer brushed aside criticism of the lane – such as claims that it was only created to benefit wealthy drivers, that it creates a bottleneck at the entrance in the city, or that it was a waste of money whose effects could have been easily achieved by designating one of the existing highway routes as a bus-lane.

“If we were to turn one of the existing lanes into a lane for public transportation, it would have created a transportation disaster,” Yotzer explained. “The traffic jams that today stretch for a single digit number of kilometers would stretch halfway to Jerusalem.

“By going ahead with this project, we opened a new lane that didn’t exist before, and paid for it – by charging those who are willing to pay – a premium for faster travel.

Some people benefit, some people’s situation remained the same as it was – but nobody is worse off than they were before.

Regarding critics’ claims that the new lane produced a bottleneck when it connected to the Ayalon freeway, Yotzer said the number of lanes remained the same as before, and fewer vehicles now used the road.

“The criticism that we heard after the first day proved to be unfounded,” Yotzer said. “Today there were 230 vehicles parked in the Park and Go in Shafirim – that’s hundreds of cars that didn’t enter the city. Who knows how many more people used the bus because they could travel into the city more quickly, saving even more vehicles from coming in? “Our challenge is not convincing people that it’s better to pay than to stand in traffic – that’s self-evident.”

he continued. “Our challenge is to get people to give up on entering the city with their cars altogether, and that is where we will focus our attention.”

Yotzer said that once the concept of the HOT-lane proved itself, he hoped similar projects would be built in other entrances to Tel Aviv.

“The interest is there,” Yotzer said.

“The only obstacle is the bureaucracy and the time it takes for projects like this to be approved, planned and constructed.”


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