How to Solve Traffic Congestion: A Miracle in Louisville?

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These pictures were taken by traffic cameras pointed in opposite directions on the I-65 bridges across the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky, on Wednesday, November 3 at about 5:30 p.m. Traffic engineers have a term for this amount of traffic: They call it “Level of Service A” (LOS A)—meaning that there’s so little traffic on a roadway that drivers can go pretty much as fast as they want. Highway engineers grade traffic on a scale from LOS A (free flowing, almost empty) to LOS F (bumper to bumper, stop and go). Most of the time, they’re happy to have roads manage LOS D.

So, looks like somebody finally figured out how to reduce traffic congestion! Usually, as we know, simply widening highways (to as many as 23 lanes, as is the case with Houston’s Katy Freeway) simply generates more traffic and even longer delays and travel times. And, with no sense of irony, highway boosters even tout the Katy Freeway as a “success story,” despite the fact it made traffic congestion worse. In contrast, Louisville’s I-65 is an extraordinarily rare case where traffic congestion went away after a state highway department did something.

You’d think that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Indiana Department of Transportation (DOT) would be getting a special award, and holding seminars at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to explain how to eliminate traffic congestion. The fact that they aren’t tells you all you need to know about the real priorities of state highway departments: They really only care about building things, not about whether congestion goes away or not.

So how did they do it? Let’s go back a few years. In 2010, I-65 consisted of a single six-lane bridge over the Ohio River, which carried about 120,000 vehicles per day. The two states decided this was getting too crowded (and predicted worsening delay due to ever expanding traffic volumes), and so spent about $1 billion building a second six-lane bridge (the Lincoln) next to the existing Kennedy bridge. After it opened in 2017, the two states implemented a toll to pay part of the cost of construction. Tolls started at $2 for single crossings (if you had a transponder), but regular commuters were given a discounted toll: Regular commuters pay just a bit over $1 for each crossing. Today the toll for one-way crossings if you have a transponder (and 450,000 area vehicles do), is $2.21. But if you cross the bridge 40 times a month (back and forth daily for 20 work days), your toll for each trip is reduced by half to $1.10.

And after the tolls went into effect, traffic on I-65 fell by half. Here’s the average daily traffic count on I-65, according to data tabulated by the Indiana Department of Transportation. In the years just prior to the tolling, traffic was in the 135,000 to 140,000 vehicles per day level. But as soon as tolling went into effect, traffic dropped to barely 60,000 vehicles per day (with a very slight further decline due to COVID-19 in 2020).

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