The Texas Transportation Commission formally agreed Thursday to replace the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on Interstate 30 in Arlington and Dallas with toll lanes.It was one of the last bureaucratic steps needed to open a toll lane on a federal interstate highway. However, it will be done with a twist.The toll lanes, scheduled to open in 2015, will feature “variable pricing,” with rates that change depending on congestion.The so-called managed lanes, which are already under reconstruction, stretch from west of Fielder Road in Arlington to Sylvan Avenue near downtown Dallas.The I-30 HOV lanes were closed in July to allow the Texas Department of Transportation to begin roughly two years of construction.“The construction includes adding wishbone ramps and toll gantries,” department spokesman Tony Hartzel said.Transportation Commission members didn’t discuss the long-awaited action during Thursday’s regular monthly meeting in McAllen, other than to briefly exchange jokes about the I-30 corridor being a gateway to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys.“It will slow down those going to the Cowboys games, won’t it?” said Commissioner Fred Underwood of Lubbock.Commission Chairman Ted Houghton of El Paso retorted: “Those who want to go.”A new lookThe lane configuration will be unusual along the 18.8-mile corridor.From Fielder Road to near Texas 360 will have one permanent lane in each direction. East of Texas 360, the corridor will feature two reversible lanes — except for near downtown Dallas, where traffic will merge into just one reversible lane.Tolls will be collected electronically — no booths — so vehicles without TollTags will have their license plates photographed and the registered owner will be sent a bill.But the most unusual feature for commuters will be the price of using the roadway.As it stands, the plan is to charge single-occupant vehicles on the I-30 corridor the full toll — although the exact dollar amount hasn’t been announced. But during peak travel periods, vehicles with two or more occupants will be charged only half-price to encourage car pools, said Amanda Wilson, spokeswoman for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.Peak periods of travel are 6:30 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6:30 p.m. weekdays, she said.Motorcycles will pay half-price, and transit vehicles such as buses will be allowed on the lanes for free, she said. Also, trucks and other vehicles with more than two axles will be charged a higher-than-normal rate.The flexible-toll strategy is allowed because in 2006 the I-30 corridor was designated a “variable pricing pilot project” by the Federal Highway Administration. That gave regional officials latitude to experiment with different rates and monitor which dollar amounts are most suitable to traffic flow and revenue production.The managed lanes will be branded TEXPress lanes, as will other similar lanes planned in North Texas, officials said.Motorists traveling on I-30 will have limited opportunities to hop on the TEXPress lanes — with entries and exits at Belt Line Road and MacArthur Boulevard, and Cockrell Hill and Westmoreland roads.The contractor for the $63 million project is Austin Bridge and Road.Although the new lanes are scheduled to open in 2015, the precise timing will depend on the status of a proposal to rebuild the I-30/I-35E “Horseshoe” near downtown Dallas. The TEXPress lanes won’t open until they’re integrated with that project, Hartzel has said.A return engagementThe presence of tolls along the I-30 corridor may seem new to many North Texans. But to longtime residents, it might hark back to a different time in the region’s history.What today is I-30 opened in 1957 as the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike, a toll road providing the first nonstop highway connection between the region’s two largest cities. It was converted to a freeway in 1977 after the bonds issued to build the toll road were paid off.In the early 1990s, Dallas Area Rapid Transit began opening what were meant to be temporary HOV lanes on several Dallas-area roads, including I-30. Typically, the HOV lanes — which could be legally used only by vehicles with two or more occupants — were separated from the main lanes by a double white line, making it possible for drivers to illegally cut into the HOV lanes whenever they wanted.The lanes were patrolled by DART police, who could cite motorists for using the lanes with only one occupant in the car. Over time, the HOV lanes were criticized by many motorists, who argued that the lanes were underused and a waste of space on corridors where main lanes were jammed to the gills with single-occupant vehicles.Managed lanes emerged in the early 2000s as an alternative — a way to give car poolers a special lane on freeways and to sell unused capacity to drivers of single-occupant vehicles willing to pay a toll.The new TEXPress lanes will instead be maintained by the state Transportation Department. The toll lanes will be separated from main-lane traffic by concrete barriers, with a limited number of places every few miles where motorists can enter or exit.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson