The best things in life might be free, but there’s almost always some sort of cost for someone.
For example, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) is spending more than $100,000 on a summer pilot program that opens the inbound HOV lanes on the North Freeway, otherwise known at I-45, from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday until July 28. There is no cost to motorists – even for solo drivers using the lane generally designated for high-occupancy vehicles – although METRO already took some of their tax dollars in most cases.
And the idea, at least as far as METRO officials are concerned, is to eventually make money off their good will. By allowing drivers to use the HOV lane for free, the hope is they will enjoy the experience enough to be willing to pay for it while commuting during the week.
“That should be our intent is to encourage more folks that currently do not carpool,” METRO board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said during a March 21 meeting about the pilot program that began May 4. “Maybe with piloting this for single-occupancy vehicles for free, you can experience it and start using it as an HOV user or as a park-and-ride rider.”
The “free” part is a key difference between METRO’s current pilot program for expanded HOV usage and the previous one in 2015, when on weekends it opened all five of its inbound HOV lanes (U.S. 290, I-45 north and south, and U.S. 59 north and south). It was for automobiles with multiple occupants, but solo drivers had to pay a toll.
Another part of the 2015 pilot program was expanding outbound hours during the week from 8 p.m. until 11 p.m. Michael “Griff” Griffin, the founder of Griff’s Irish Pub on Roseland Street as well as a longtime community activist and former city council candidate, advocated for that initiative before 2015 and said he still wants it to happen during a recent visit to The Leader. The idea, Griffin said, is to encourage more Houstonians to visit downtown by reducing their concerns about getting out of downtown in a timely and convenient fashion.
But according to Tim Kelly, METRO’s executive vice president who is responsible for operations, public safety and customer service, there wasn’t enough of a time savings for drivers or a reduction in freeway congestion for such a change to be worthwhile on a regular basis. The same goes for opening inbound HOV lanes on weekends, Kelly said, which is why METRO shelved the initiative after the 2015 pilot.
So why do it again now? Kelly said the dynamics of downtown have changed during the last few years, with more desirable entertainment and recreational options. A lot more people attend Astros games since the team transformed from laughingstock in 2014 to World Series champion in 2017.
Still, with the results of the 2015 pilot program in mind, METRO scaled back the initiative to include only the North Freeway. Kelly said that HOV lane had the best utilization four years ago and that the mostly overhauled board wanted to give it another try.
“What we get criticized for often is empty-lane syndrome and all this concrete that’s not being used,” Kelly said. “We want to use our investment to benefit people and get the best possible return.”
METRO CEO Tom Lambert echoed that sentiment during the March meeting, saying the pilot program is all about maximizing the existing roadways and trying to meet the evolving, 24-hour demands of Houston traffic. Kelly said the early data shows that more drivers are taking advantage of this year’s pilot program than they did in 2015.
METRO, which has a bold vision for expanding the city’s public transit options during the next 20 years and will be asking voters for bonding authority in November, also hopes the pilot program leads to more money it can spend.
For now, though, it’s free. So drivers might as well take advantage.
Since traffic flowing south from the city’s northern suburbs figures to be less problematic this summer, perhaps people in Garden Oaks, Oak Forest or the Heights will be more inclined to make a Saturday trip to Old Town Spring for shopping or venture into Montgomery County to play golf on a Sunday.
Surely there are lots of other ways to take advantage of this free program that won’t be free for long.