9 Investigates: How I-4 toll lanes will work



ORLANDO, Fla. - Soon, Interstate 4 through central Florida will expand to handle an increase of traffic. 

When the expansion is concluded, I-4 will feature tolled express lanes designed to give drivers the opportunity to bypass traffic and move quickly through the area.

For 40 miles, from U.S. Route 27 in Polk County to State Road 435 in Orange County, then from State Road 434 in Seminole County to State Road 472 in Volusia County, express lanes will charge drivers a toll to move at a consistent speed, regardless of congestion in the nontolled lanes.

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But the cost of those tolls will be tied to congestion. The more congestion on the free lanes, the more drivers will pay to take the toll lanes.

In South Florida, Miami has similar express lanes on Interstate 95. The Miami express lanes stretch about 8 miles, with only one entry point and only one exit point. 

Depending on the time of day, the cost of using the express lanes in Miami will be as little as 50 cents, but it has been as much as $10.50 for a one-way trip.

"It's a choice. You have that option of whether or not you want to pay to get to your destination sooner," said Florida Department of Transportation district traffic operations engineer Omar Meitin.  "It's not designed for a short trip, and the more people using the express lanes, the price can increase."

In Miami, traffic data is analyzed in real-time with computer algorithms, updating the toll for using the lanes every 15 minutes based on the previous 15 minutes of traffic data. 

The system looks at speed to determine congestion and raises the toll to keep the minimum speed in the two toll-express lanes at 45 mph. 

The purpose of congestion tolling is not to make a profit but rather discourage drivers from using the express lanes and to maintain a consistent speed.  

"We do see a switch in demand as the price goes up," said Charles Robbins, of Sun Guide, which manages the system. "We are seeing the peak period start to stretch."

In central Florida, the express lanes will be newly constructed lanes.  However, in Miami the express lanes were originally a single HOV lane that was expanded into two express lanes. 

Miami officials said the high occupancy vehicle lane, before the expansion, had become almost as congested as the non-HOV lanes.

"Prior to 95 Express, the HOV lanes were actually -- people were driving at 18 miles an hour. Today in the express lanes, they're going 60 miles an hour, and in the general purpose lanes, speeds were about 15 miles an hour, and now they're traveling 45 miles an hour," said Meitin.

Miami transportation directors said since the implementation of the express lanes the agency has reached $10.50 on several occasions.  Currently, $10.50 is the cap for a one-way toll.

However, Sun Guide said it is currently considering raising the cap. 

I-4 will feature the same congestion tolling as I-95. However, I-4 will give driver opportunities at specific points to enter or exit the express lanes, depending on congestion and the toll price. 

In Miami, Sun Guide said the price of the tolls has started to have an impact on driver habits. 

The agency said it has noticed drivers seeking alternative routes or planning their commute for earlier or later in the day, when the toll on the express lanes is lower.

The I-4 project has already started and is expected to be finished in about 6 ½ years at a cost of $2.3 billion.