Editorial: 'Managed lanes' worth a cautious look, but many questions remain

The Illinois Department of Transportation says it has two years to decide whether to use some form of the "managed-lane" concept to help justify or even pay for the addition of a traffic lane along I-55 through DuPage and Cook counties. It's an idea with some merit in concept, but with plenty of practical questions that remain to be answered.

IDOT's immediate interest in managed lanes - that is, traffic lanes restricted to low-polluting vehicles, cars with multiple passengers or to people who pay an added toll to save some time - stems from discussion about constructing an additional lane of highway to handle congestion on I-55 from I-355 to I-80/94. Even if it gets approved, the project won't get under way until 2017, so obviously, there's no great urgency in the discussion of high-occupancy lanes there. But the fact is, as any Chicago-area commuter has known for years, that the region's congestion problem is not some matter for futuristic speculation but a clear and present problem today.

High-occupancy traffic lanes have been used for decades in other states and other countries. They haven't on their own solved congestion, and they won't solve the problem in Chicago. The issue for traffic planners will be to determine whether they've been - or whether they can be - successful enough to overcome questions that naturally come with them.

The Illinois Tollway raised the notion of managed lanes as it began studying the possible addition of a lane along a troublesome stretch of I-294. As with the I-55 proposal, the impetus for that discussion had as much to do with economics as with traffic management. Maybe, planners speculated, if we charge people more to use the additional lane, we can help defray the overall project cost. Or, at least we can encourage more ride sharing. Or, perhaps we can do both.

It's a line of discussion that is somewhat simpler within the context of the tollway than for a single lane on a portion of the otherwise taxpayer-supported I-55 freeway. But both proposals share difficult questions - How would such lanes be managed? How would restrictions be enforced? Who would enforce them? And to what extent would such an arrangement open the door for "restrictions" or even tolls on other existing roads?

Arlington Heights Republican state Rep. David Harris, as quoted by transportation writer Marni Pyke in her Daily Herald column this week, adds another - will it work? Will such lanes provide enough of a benefit so that people will use them?

They're all reasonable issues that demand good answers. If such answers can be found, the lanes may promote a reduction in the number of cars on the roads and, they can provide a reward or an added value for people who are willing to pay for it or to be more responsible in the way they travel. That's worth thinking about, if not jumping into.

No one can deny the seriousness of the Chicago area's traffic problems, which, in addition to simple annoyance exact huge costs in lost productivity and increased pollution. Planners of the region's future highways need to explore a diverse supply of options, and the concept of restricting certain lanes in the interests of traffic reduction, cleaner air or even shared cost has a place in the discussion. But much study remains to determine just where that place is.

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