WASHINGTON — A recently released Fitch Ratings report projects a sharp increase in the use of "managed" or HOT lanes on highways, but warns that such toll lanes will be more volatile than traditional toll roads because they are located next to non-toll roads.
Managed lanes, or MLs, are already in use in Colorado, Texas, northern Virginia, California, Florida, Minnesota and Georgia.
The ML system involves supplying solo drivers the opportunity to use high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes in exchange for a toll.
The structure of the systems varies widely. The revenues may cover the maintenance of the road, back private-activity bonds, or go to the private parties in public-private partnerships.
From 1995 until 2005, the only example of transportation policymakers using the ML approach, sometimes called high-occupancy toll, or HOT lanes, was the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, Calif.
Since that time, a half-dozen other examples have cropped up around the country and more are under development.
The Fitch report expects more widespread use of MLs, which the agency's analysts said represent the next phase of attempts to relieve urban traffic congestion while paying the rising costs of infrastructure.
In California, the model is spreading from Orange County to other densely packed urban areas.
"We know they're looking at these in the San Francisco Bay Area," as well as the Los Angeles area, said Michael McDermott, a Fitch analyst who worked on the report.
The ML approach is appealing in those areas because there isn't room to expand the infrastructure by building new roads, said Chad Lewis, another Fitch analyst.
Even though the approach has "a robust traffic base to build from," the report states, the specific structure and other policy decisions make all the difference in determining whether the project will be able to service its long-term debt.
Those policy questions include decisions such as whether buses are allowed to use the managed lanes or not.
Though mass transit provides an inexpensive commuter option that Fitch acknowledges as crucial for urban areas, that policy could slow the flow of traffic in MLs and reduce their value, the report concludes.
That points to the larger analysis in the report, which shows that MLs are highly sensitive to the performance of the general purpose lanes next to them.
On the 91 Express Lanes, for example, a 1.6% reduction in overall highway traffic in fiscal 2011 led to a 9.6% fall in managed lane traffic.
In December, Fitch reaffirmed its A rating on $165.7 million of toll road revenue bonds backed by the 91's ML revenue, but warned that increased lane capacity could discourage users and trigger a rating action.
"The key takeaway here is that while urban roads are generally more resilient to economic conditions and fuel prices than other types of toll roads, small changes in volume lead to bigger changes in performance," the report reads.
Accordingly, Fitch said, future ratings will incorporate conservative growth estimates and test for resilience to major "shocks," such as the one on the 91 Express Lanes, simulating both short-term economic changes and permanent capacity changes.
New managed-lane projects are expected to open within two to three years in Fort Lauderdale, Dallas and Fort Worth.