Houston Managed Lanes Case Study: The Evolution of the Houston HOV System


Development and Operation of the HOV Lane System

As noted previously, traffic congestion was a significant concern in Houston during the 1970s. The Texas Highway Department (THD) was planning expansions to many freeways and examining possible improvements to others. At the same time, the privately-owned bus company was encountering serious financial difficulties. As a result, service levels were low and buses were in poor conditions.

In the early 1970s, the City of Houston was exploring options for establishing a public transit authority. A long-range transit plan was prepared, which included an extensive rail system and HOV lanes on some freeways. This plan was the basis for a 1973 ballot measure to establish the Houston Area Rapid Transit Authority (HARTA). Although supported by the City Council and community leaders, voters defeated the HARTA proposal. In 1974, the City purchased the privately-owned bus company and established the Office of Public Transportation (OPT).

The OPT began an aggressive program to upgrade the bus system. The Office developed a strong working relationship with the THD Houston District to explore and implement congestion reducing strategies. OPT and THD shared a common interest in addressing increasing levels of traffic congestion by encouraging greater use of buses, vanpools, and carpools. THD was concerned about improving travel conditions on congested freeways and OPT was interested in methods to move buses through traffic more efficiently and to improve services levels and the image of the bus system. Using a federal Service and Methods Demonstration (SMD) grant, the OPT and THD examined the potential of freeway HOV lanes, which were a relatively new concept at the time. A contraflow lane demonstration project on the North (I-45 North) Freeway was recommended to test the HOV concept.

A contraflow HOV lane uses a lane in the off-peak direction of travel for HOV travel in the peak direction. Contraflow lanes are appropriate for corridors with high directional splits, such as 60 percent of traffic in the peak direction and 40 percent in the off-peak direction. The excess capacity in the off-peak direction of travel is used for HOVs moving in the peak direction. The I-45 N corridor had a high directional split and travel in the peak direction was very congested. Thus, the corridor provided the right conditions for the demonstration.

The demonstration project included a nine-mile contraflow HOV lane, park-and-ride lots, freeway ramp metering, and contracted bus service. The demonstration was funded through a variety of sources, including federal highway and transit programs, state highway funds, and local sources. The unique blend of financing provides an indication of the cooperation among agencies and the willingness to take creative approaches. This unique mix of financing and interagency cooperation continued as important characteristics of future HOV projects.

The development and operation of the contraflow lane and subsequent HOV facilities was guided by a series of agreements between the two agencies. These institutional arrangements are discussed in Chapter Three. Construction and operation of the contraflow demonstration project also represented a joint effort. The THD, which became the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation (SDHPT), was responsible for construction management, engineering, and inspection, and OPT administered the funds for contractor payments and reimbursement of SDHPT.

During the development of the contraflow lane the city continued to work toward establishing a regional transit agency. In 1978, voters approved the creation of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) and the dedication of one percent of the local sales tax to fund the agency. The 1978 Regional Transit Plan, which identified the projects METRO would pursue, included HOV facilities in most freeway corridors, as well as rail transit. The HOV facilities included in this plan have been incorporated and refined in METRO, TxDOT, and Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) plans over the years. With the creation of METRO, OPT was dissolved in 1979.

The contraflow lane began operation in August 1979. Figure 1 shows the location of the contraflow lane. The lane operated from 5:45 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. in the inbound direction toward downtown and from 3:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the outbound direction. The contraflow lane was created by taking the inside freeway lane in the off-peak direction of travel for use by buses and vanpools traveling in the peak-direction. The lane was separated from opposing traffic by plastic pylons, which were set up and removed by METRO crews each morning and afternoon.

Due to safety concerns, only buses and authorized vanpools were allowed to use the contraflow lane. Figure 2 highlights the operation of the lane. To become eligible to use the lane, vanpool drivers had to register and complete training provided by METRO. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, many large downtown employers subsidized vanpools for their employees in response to the Arab Oil Embargo in 1979. Enforcement of the lane was initially contracted to the Houston Police Department. METRO established its own transit police force in 1982 and assumed enforcement duties of the contraflow lane at that time. METRO also provided wreckers at strategic locations along the lane to deal with any accidents or incidents.


Figure 1: The map shows the location of the Interstate highways and other major highways in the Houston area.  Highways and Interstates that are listed on this map include Katy (I-10W), the North (I-45N), the Gulf (I-45S), the Northwest (US 290), the Southwest (US 59S), the Eastex (US 59N) Freeways; State Highway 249, 6, and 288, and Farm-to-Market Road 1960.  The location of the I-45N Contraflow lane is identified by dashed lines.  The figure provides the location of the I-45N contraflow lane, the first HOV lane implemented in Houston.  It also provides perspective of the freeway and major roadway system in Houston.

Figure 1. Location of I-45 North Contraflow Lane.


Figure 2: This photo shows a Houston METRO bus operating in the North (I-45N) Freeway contraflow lane.  The contraflow lane is separated from the adjacent freeway lane by plastic pylons inserted in the freeway.  This figure shows the general design and operation of the I-45N contraflow lane.

Figure 2. I-45 North Contraflow Lane.

Use of the contraflow lane exceeded projections. Some 8,000 bus riders and vanpoolers used the lane on a daily basis during the first few years of the project. During the morning peak hour, the lane carried nearly as many people as the adjacent two freeway lanes. A 3.3-mile concurrent flow lane upstream from the entrance to the contraflow lane was opened in 1981. Use levels increased to a high of 15,000 riders per day with this improvement.

The success of the demonstration project resulted in a permanent HOV facility on the North Freeway and the consideration of HOV lanes on other freeways. The demonstration proved that commuters would change from driving alone to taking the bus or riding in a vanpool. Survey results indicate that some 35 to 39 percent of bus riders and 30 to 42 percent of vanpoolers previously drove alone.

As a result of the demonstration, a reversible HOV lane was added to plans for upgrading and expanding the North Freeway. The permanent HOV lane was a one-lane barrier separated reversible facility located in the center median of the freeway. A number of factors influenced the use of this design, including limited right-of-way, increased safety due to barrier separation, and the directional split of travel in the corridor. In September of 1984, the first segment of the permanent HOV lane opened and operation of the contraflow lane ceased.

The development of the second HOV lane in Houston took advantage of a planned improvement project. Plans to repair and overlay a 10-mile segment of the Katy Freeway were moving forward in the late 1970s, with a major reconstruction effort anticipated in the future. An HOV lane on the Katy Freeway had been identified in the 1978 Regional Transit Plan. To take advantage of the opportunity presented by the repair project, the design of the HOV lane was expedited and the overlay project was delayed slightly. Working jointly, the SDHPT and METRO completed the design and construction process, including obtaining the necessary federal approvals, and the first 4.7-mile segment of the Katy HOV lane was opened in October of 1984. Figure 3 shows the location of the Katy HOV lane and the HOV system in 1985.

The lane initially operated inbound from 5:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and outbound from 3:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Operating hours were extended to 5:45 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in 1986. Following the vehicle eligibility requirements in use on I-45 North, only buses and vanpools were initially allowed to use the Katy HOV lane. Only 66 vanpools and 20 buses, for a total of 86 vehicles, used the lane during the morning peak hour with these requirements. To address this low use, the lane was open to authorized 4+ carpools in 1985. The occupancy requirement was dropped to 3+ carpools later in 1985 and to 2+ carpools in 1986. Table 1 highlights the initial changes in vehicle eligibility and vehicle-occupancy levels and corresponding use levels.


Figure 3: This is the same map shown in Figure 1, but updated to show the HOV lanes in operation in 1985.  The HOV lane on the Katy (I-10W) and the North (I-45N) freeways are indicated by dashed lines.  The location of park-and-ride lots are indicated by dots.  This map indicates the development of the HOV lanes and park-and-ride lots in Houston as of 1985.

Figure 3. 1985 Houston HOV Lane System.

Table 1. Changes in Vehicle Occupancy Requirements and Corresponding Vehicle Volumes on the Katy HOV Lane
Vehicle Eligibility and Vehicle-Occupancy Requirements Date (Time after Opening) AM Peak Hour HOV Lane Vehicle Volumes
Carpools Vanpools Buses Total
Buses and Authorized Vanpools October 1984 66 20 86
Buses, Authorized Vanpools and Authorized 4+ Carpools April 1985
(6 months)
3 68 25 96
Buses, Authorized Vanpools, and Authorized 3+ Carpools September 1985
(1 year)
53 59 31 143
Buses, Vanpools, and 2+ Carpools November 1986
(2 years)
1,195 38 32 1,265
November 1987
(3 years)
1,453 21 37 1,511

The HOV system expanded significantly from 1985 to 2003. Figures 4 and 5 illustrate the growth in the HOV system over this 18-year period. METRO and the renamed Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) continued to work cooperatively on the development and operation of the HOV system. Funding from METRO, TxDOT, FHWA, and FTA was used for different parts of the system.


Figure 4: This is the same map shown in Figure 1 and illustrates the growth the Houston HOV system from 1985 to 1995.  The HOV lanes on the Katy (I-10W), the North (I-45N), the Gulf (I-45S), the Northwest (US 290), the Southwest (US 59S), freeways are indicated by dashed lines, location of park-and-ride lots are indicated by dots, and transit centers are indicated by circles.  This map indicates the status of the HOV system in Houston in 1995, including HOV lanes, park-and-ride lots, and transit centers.

Figure 4. 1995 Houston HOV Lane System.


Figure 5: This is the same map shown in Figure 1 and illustrates the growth the Houston HOV system from 1995 to 2003.  The HOV lanes on the Katy (I-10W), the North (I-45N), the Gulf (I-45S), the Northwest (US 290), the Southwest (US 59S), the Eastex (US 59N) are indicated by dashed lines, location of park-and-ride lots are indicated by dots, and transit centers are indicated by circles.

Figure 5. 2003 Houston HOV Lane System.

By 2003, some 100 miles of HOV lanes are in operation in six freeway corridors. The main elements of the HOV system – the HOV lanes, park-and-ride lots, transit centers, direct access ramps, and express bus service – are highlighted next.

Use of the HOV Lane System

METRO and TxDOT sponsor ongoing monitoring of the Houston HOV system. A multi-year TxDOT research study provided an annual assessment of the system for many years. METRO supports ongoing data collection and evaluation efforts. The monitoring program focuses primarily on HOV and freeway vehicle volumes, bus ridership levels, vehicle occupancy levels, travel times in the HOV lanes and the freeway lanes, and incident data. Periodic surveys of bus riders, carpoolers, and vanpoolers using the HOV lanes, and motorists in the general-purpose lanes have been conducted. Highlights from these and other ongoing efforts are summarized here. More detailed information is available in the reports provided in the references.

QuickRide Value Pricing Demonstration

In 1996 and 1997 TxDOT and METRO conducted a congestion or priority pricing feasibility study on the Katy Freeway. The study represented one of the congestion pricing pilot projects funded by FHWA under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The name of the pilot project program was changed to priority pricing under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). The study examined the potential of allowing 2+ carpools to use the HOV lane for a fee during the morning and afternoon peak hours when the 3+ occupancy requirement is in effect.

METRO and TxDOT staff were interested in considering the potential of 2+ HOVs using the lane during the 3+ restricted period for a fee due to the excess capacity available at those times. The pricing demonstration was viewed as a way to increase use of the lane without allowing it to become overly congested as it was in 1988 when the vehicle-occupancy requirement was raised to 3+. The study estimated that approximately 600 additional vehicles could be accommodated in the lane during the peak hour while maintaining free flow operations. Consideration of a potential demonstration reflects the ongoing interest in the part of METRO and TxDOT in maximizing use of the lanes to benefit travelers. Consideration of allowing only 2+ HOVs, rather than single-occupancy vehicles, indicates the commitment of both agencies to maintain the integrity of the HOV lane concept and to provide travel time savings and trip time reliability to HOVs.

A number of key elements were examined during the feasibility study. These included assessing the available capacity and the potential demand at different pricing levels, legal issues, and public reactions. A variety of potential operational strategies were explored, including manual and automated payment techniques. A major question was how many 2+ carpools would use the facility at different pricing levels. This analysis was critical to ensure that the HOV lane did not become congested as a result of a demonstration.

Legal and institutional issues were also examined in the assessment. These concerns included the ability to charge for use of the HOV lane, the ability to enforce fines and penalties associated with not paying the toll, and other policy changes needed to implement the demonstration. The study results indicated that METRO has the authority to charge for use of the lanes under specific conditions, that the fines are enforceable with minor modifications, and that there were no critical policies prohibiting a demonstration.

Like other congestion pricing projects, a critical issue appeared to be public acceptance. As part of the feasibility study, two focus groups were conducted in Houston. One focus group was comprised of commuters who used the Katy Freeway and the other was composed of residents throughout Houston. The focus group participants were somewhat skeptical about the concept. Both groups were also interested in how the revenue from the demonstration would be spent.

Based on a feasibility study, the decision was made to implement a demonstration project to test allowing two-person carpools to use the HOV lane for a $2.00 per trip fee during the 3+ occupancy requirement periods – 6:45 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. METRO applied for a federal demonstration grant for the project, but all of the funds had been allocated. As a result, METRO and TxDOT used funding from Houstonís allocation under the Priority Corridor Program to implement the demonstration. Approval from both the FHWA and the FTA administrators was requested based on action by the METRO Board and the TxDOT Commission. Approval for the demonstration was received from FHWA and FTA administrators. Approval from both federal agencies was needed since funding from both had been used for the Katy HOV lane and supporting elements.

The demonstration, called QuickRide, which uses an electronic toll collection system, was implemented at the end of January 1998. Individuals are required to register for the program and must have an active electronic tag account. By June 1998, 468 QuickRide electronic tags had been issued. In 2000, the demonstration was expanded to include the Northwest Freeway HOV lanes, only in the morning peak hour. As of April 2003, there were 1,476 active QuickRide accounts.

The daily use of the demonstration has grown slowly over time. In 1998, the demonstration averaged 103 daily users on the Katy HOV lanes. By 1999, some 121 participants were using the program daily. Use levels in 2000, 2001, and 2002 remained relatively constant, averaging between 120 and 128. Use levels are higher in the morning on the Katy, with some 68 percent of the daily participants traveling in the lane in the morning peak hour. Some 22 people used the program in the morning peak hour on the Northwest HOV lane in 2000, with use growing to an average of 56 by 2002.

Each enrolled tag generates an average of one tolled trip every four days, producing an average of 115 to 120 total two-person carpool trips during the 1-1/4 morning hours plus the one evening hour. Only 6.5 percent of enrolled tags produced five or more trips per week (out of a maximum of 10). Approximately 25 percent of the tags had never been used as of June 1998. Many of these may belong to two-tag households. Base on an average time savings of 18 minutes, the estimated minimum value of travel time for participating vehicles, which is the sum for both occupants, is $6.57 per hour.

Although use levels have been modest, the demonstration has been successful at allowing an additional user group to use the HOV lanes during the 3+ restricted period. It appears that many enrollees view having an electronic tag as insurance for the occasional need and opportunity to ensure a quick trip, but cannot use the program on a regular basis.

A survey of travelers on the mixed traffic lanes indicated a low level knowledge of the program. Some 55 percent of the respondents thought it was fair, however, 67 percent viewed it as effective for the HOV lanes, and 85 percent perceived a benefit for the regular lanes. While the low QuickRide usage has not resulted in significant changes in person throughput on the freeway, it appears that some 25 percent of the users are forming two-person carpools to participate, compared to only 5 percent of users who appear to be coming from all types of higher-occupancy modes.

Development of Katy Freeway Managed Lanes

Plans for expanding the Katy Freeway began in the late 1990s. The 23-mile corridor carries some 280,000 vehicles a day. The existing cross section in the most congested section from SH 6 to I-610 includes three general-purpose lanes in each direction, the HOV lane, and three lane frontage roads in each direction.

A number of alternatives were examined in the Major Investment Study (MIS), including four special-use lanes in the freeway median. Other options included additional general-purpose lanes and expanding the HOV lanes. The special-use or managed lane option emerged from this study as the preferred alternative. The specific operation of the managed lanes was not defined, but user groups considered included buses, 3+ HOVs, QuickRide HOVs, vanpools, trucks, and long-distance travelers. Other than QuickRide participants, tolling was not considered as an operational strategy. The cross-section for the section between SH 6 an I-610 would include a three-lane frontage road and four main lanes in each direction of travel, and the four managed lanes.

During the environmental impact statement (EIS) process, the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) expressed interest in participating in the managed lanes portion of the project. The EIS was modified to include tolling. Additional public involvement activities were conducted, along with a more detailed assessment of potential toll-related issues. Chapter Four, FHWA Program Guidance on HOV Operations, provides information on the issues to be examined when major changes in HOV operations are being considered.

There are two multi-agency agreements that have been used to date to advance the toll-managed lanes on the Katy Freeway. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between TxDOT, METRO, and Harris County was signed in 2002. The MOU outlined the general roles of the three groups, specific provisions for transit, and the basic elements of the operating agreement. HCTRA is responsible for enforcement, incident management, and maintenance of the lanes. The MOU identifies a level of service (LOS) C as the target for the managed lanes. It also identifies transit access points, provides an option for future light rail transit (LRT), and allows special signing for METRO. The MOU also identifies the following elements in operating the managed lane:

The MOU also outlines the options that will be considered if a LOS C is not maintained. The potential actions include adjusting variable pricing, adjusting the HOV occupancy-level requirements, restricting METRO support vehicles, and expanding the facility to add transit-only lanes. METRO buses and METROLift vehicles are identified as the top priorities to continue using the lanes, followed by HOVs and non-revenue METRO vehicles are listed as the lowest priority.

The Tri-Party Agreement among TxDOT, FHWA, and Harris County was signed in March 2003. This agreement outlines the roles and responsibilities for funding, design, and reconstruction of the managed lanes. Harris County, through HCTRA, agreed to provide contributions equal to the construction cost, not to exceed $250 million. HCTRA is also responsible for design of the toll-related elements and any additional public involvement needed to consider the toll elements. The toll revenues will be used for debt service, reasonable return on investment, and funding operation and maintenance of the managed lanes. TxDOTís responsibilities include securing federal funding, the remaining right-of-way, and construction. TxDOT also agreed to provide it best efforts to meet the project schedule, including the use of incentives and other techniques.

Managed Lanes are also being considered in the Northwest corridor. A potential alternative in this corridor involves HCTRA purchasing an existing railroad right-of-way and developing a toll road and managed lane facility. Right-of-way would also be reserved for potential future LRT or commuter rail. Development of the toll facility may allow TxDOT to phase improvements to the Northwest Freeway over a longer period of time.

Future Directions

As noted previously, HOV facilities have been a key part of METRO, TxDOT, and HGAC plans since the late 1970s. Plans at the metropolitan level identified the candidate freeway corridors. As more detailed planning activities were undertaken at the corridor level, the location of HOV lanes, access points, park-and-ride lots, and transit centers were identified.

The use of the HOV and managed lane system in Houston continues to evolve through the coordinated efforts of various agencies and groups. Current TxDOT, METRO, HGAC, and HCTRA plans include expanding the HOV system, considering additional managed lanes, extending the initial LRT line, and developing new toll facilities. Plans, projects, and activities anticipated over the next five to 10 years are highlighted below.

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