Q & A with Debora Rivera, P.E. (Part 2)
Director of Transportation Operations, FDOT District Six
(Continued from page 8 in the CMS Fall 2008 newsletter)
For other communities that may be considering Express lanes, what are some of the things they need to be doing when pursuing a similar congestion mitigation project?
Engage the public in the discussion of congestion relief, and the advantages and disadvantages of the various approaches including the no-build. This is where you talk about project costs, user and area economic benefits, which alternatives maximize use of the existing infrastructure, the long and short term impacts of construction, and speed of project delivery. The FDOT also used focus groups to test the community's views on, and interest in an express lane concept. This is an important step because it tells you what your obstacles are which then helps in identifying ways of overcoming those obstacles and in crafting the project message.
Another important thing is the way the project is approached. Traffic-responsive, demand management projects are in large part about operating and managing the infrastructure, and for us this meant having operations folks involved early on, and able to meaningfully influence project decisions. The biggest challenges of the job weren't necessarily the highway design or construction methods but in developing good signing and marking plans, figuring out and implementing all the changes needed in the Traffic Management Center Sunguide software, developing tolling algorithms, and implementing new incident response strategies because you're now operating a corridor within a corridor.
We also felt that beefing up transit service was key to the project's success because this emphasized the fact that the project was about offering new choices and benefits to more users. By making transit more convenient, reliable and fast, it becomes an attractive and reasonable alternative. Transit becomes a practical and competitive choice for commuters.
What are some of the lessons that you learned so far from the project that may be useful to others? We learned a lot with this project, and also learned a lot from folks from around the country who have built and operated express lanes projects in California, Colorado and Minnesota. One important finding was that every project is a little different, and developed within its own unique context. For 95 Express the context was a corridor experiencing severe congestion and terrible trip reliability which affected our HOV, solo drivers and transit users. Another important part of our project context was the tolling history and experience in South Florida, and that users were familiar with electronic and open-road tolling. We also had a very well established regional commuter assistance program in South Florida Commuter Services.
Other lessons learned included the need for much higher levels of public information during implementation. Because this project involved a change in how we were going to operate the corridor, the message to the public needed to focus on the operational changes even more than the usual discussion of lane closures and hours of work. We needed to let folks know exactly when the express lanes were going to be physically separated from the general purpose or local lanes because drivers were used to being able to freely move between the HOV and adjacent lanes. This represented a huge change in how the facility operated and was the biggest problem for us when the lanes opened to traffic.
What challenges have the Express lanes project faced thus far? I guess I would have to say that one of the most exciting aspects of the job was the scope and schedule. I mean, how often do you see a project go from telling the contractor he can start designing to opening six half miles of a new lane of traffic on the interstate in 6 months? That's how long it took - from January to July - to add a new lane, convert the existing HOV lane to an express lane, and have them both open to traffic. Tolling is scheduled to begin on December 5 , so that's just 11 months to having the first phase of the project fully operational. One of the unfortunate challenges has been the vandalism that our ITS infrastructure is exposed to, so we've had to find better ways of protecting or "hardening" the system.
Ultimately, the biggest challenges of this project could be the very high traffic volumes and high demand for incident response along I-95 - the same factors that lead to increased delay, increased travel times and reduced trip reliability, and which made the express lanes a very good solution.
Anything else you would like to add? It's such an exciting and innovative project and there's so much to talk about. 95 Express is a multimodal, demand management approach to congestion relief. It makes better use of the existing infrastructure, is far more cost effective than traditional widening alone, is able to be delivered in a fraction of the time, and by working largely within the existing footprint has few if any of the usual adverse impacts of widening. And 95 Express does things that conventional projects don't do directly. It encourages travel during off-peak periods. It encourages ridesharing by offering a faster and more reliable toll-free ride to folks who register with South Florida Commuter Services. It also promotes transit use by eliminating existing transit transfers, increasing the number of transit buses offering service along the corridor, and by making transit a faster and more reliable option.
The FDOT will have delivered an important element of a congestion relief project in just 11 months; the project will increase capacity by roughly 20 percent going from five to six lanes in each direction; and because of the UPA grant and the support of the Florida Legislature, almost $98 million in federal and state funds came to South Florida that would not otherwise been sent our way.
Note: The first portion of this interview can be found on page 8 of the Fall 2008 issue of the CMS newsletter