If you want to get to work faster by car in Massachusetts, you may have to pay for it.
Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed building new dedicated lanes on the state's major highways that would be reserved for paying customers. The goal of these so-called "managed lanes" would be to alleviate traffic during rush hour. If the plan goes through, it would be the first time Massachusetts added toll lanes since the MassPike was built in 1957.
"States create a separate new lane on a highway with severe congestion that's tolled alongside no-toll roads so that drivers have options," Baker said in early August when he floated the idea during a news conference. "While drivers have a choice to commute in a faster lane for a cost, drivers who remain in the un-tolled lane will also experience lighter volume from those who peel off for the faster lane."
That ability for a driver to have a choice is what attracts Baker to the proposal.
Last year, the governor vetoed a different proposal that some legislators saw as a way to lessen traffic congestion during rush hour. It would have reduced tolls on the MassPike for those driving during off-peak hours. In rejecting the measure, Baker said he thought it would have little effect on traffic and would be unfair to those who could not change their work schedule to take advantage of the discount.
The governor said at the time he instead wanted the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to conduct a full traffic study and make recommendations on how to alleviate congestion. After more than a year of study, the report was released on Aug. 8, during a news conference hosted by Baker and Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
Among the recommendations was to investigate the feasibility of congestion pricing, or charging more for tolls during peak times. That would mean adding tolls to major highways like I-95, I-93 and Route 24.
If Baker moves forward with his preferred option, it would require a massive investment in new highway construction. This would include roads like I-95 that already have more than two lanes, as the governor has said he doesn’t want any existing lanes converted into managed lanes.
“This lane has to be in addition to existing un-tolled lanes, so those who don't drive in the tolled lanes do not lose a travel lane when a toll lane is added," Baker said in August.
Despite the cost — which remains unclear — and the potential for construction to disrupt traffic, Baker is adamant this can be done.
“I think almost everything we're talking about and proposing here we would be able to do over the next three to four years," Baker said. "I believe this idea has significant merit and it requires significant planning and design work, which we will pursue.”
The benefits of creating new lanes are clear, according to UCLA Urban Planning Professor Michael Manville.
“Almost anytime these managed lanes have been put in, you see traffic flowing much more smoothly, delay going down and many more vehicles being moved in these managed lanes. They are, at this point, a proven intervention,” Manville said.
Although managed lanes have been dubbed “Lexus Lanes,” because they require a toll, Jennifer Aument of the highway management company TransUrban said they don't appear to disadvantage lower income drivers from using them.
“What we find in actual practice of express lanes across the country is that income is not a differentiator," Aument said. "Most customers pay less than $20 a month for the service and only use the express lane service when they only need to be somewhere on time.”
Drivers WGBH News interviewed at the I-95 rest area in Newton seemed willing to pay for a quicker commute. Paul Bartel, from Lunenburg, was one of them, especially if he could avoid traffic on a congested SouthEast expressway.
"As the expression goes, 'Time is money,'" Bartel said. "So, if you could cut your commute from an hour and a half to 45 minutes for $5, I think people would pay it.”
Aument said that once drivers experience managed lanes, they usually become believers.
"Consumers are willing to pay a toll when they get real value for the toll they are paying," she said. "And so when consumers see that in action, they actually support the project."