United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration FHWA HomeFeedback

Chapter 2
The HOT Lane Planning and Implementation Process

The planning implementation process associated with HOT lanes is deceptively similar to that of other highway improvements. However, there are a number of issues that are likely to arise that may require special attention and have the potential to introduce the unexpected. This chapter reviews the implementation process and identifies key elements that are likely to be encountered along the way.


The initial decision to consider HOT lanes is one of the most important milestones in the implementation process. The decision to pursue a highway improvement is usually the result of a search for a solution to a specific transportation need. Therefore, it is helpful to recognize that there are a number of discernable conditions where HOT lanes can be particularly effective. They include the following:

Lack of Free-Flowing Parallel Routes
HOT lanes work best in larger metropolitan areas on high density corridors where there are limited travel options. The lack of free-flowing parallel routes, together with limited transit options, makes HOT lanes more attractive. Although there is some commuter rail service, the SR 91 in Orange County is located in a canyon with no parallel arterial or nearby parallel highway. I-15 in San Diego runs through Miramar Naval Air Station, which limits the possibility of parallel access routes. When there are limited travel options other than the highway corridor itself, HOT lanes offer motorists and transit users another choice.

Congested HOV Facilities
HOT lanes can also be effective in situations where HOV lane demand exceeds the capacity of a single lane, but cannot by itself justify the expansion of the facility by adding a second HOV lane. Under HOT operation, additional paying vehicles would be allowed on to the lanes, making optimal use of the facility, while freeing some capacity on the existing general purpose lanes. As with the Katy Freeway in Houston, the HOT lane approach can also be effective when implemented in conjunction with an increase in occupancy requirements from HOV-2 to HOV-3 on congested facilities where the addition of a new managed lane is not contemplated.

Underutilized HOV Facilities
HOT lanes are appropriate in locations where demand for an existing HOV lane is below its operational capacity and where there is congestion during peak periods on the parallel general-purpose lanes. In such cases, additional paying SOV motorists may be allowed to use the facility, with tolls set at levels that maintain desired traffic service standards.

Implementation Process

The overall planning and implementation process for HOT lanes should be familiar to most transportation professionals. As shown in Figure 1, the steps involved are similar to those associated with any highway improvement. The process can be described as follows:

Figure 1.
HOT Lane Implementation Process

This flow diagram outlines the basic steps involved in the implementation process for HOT lane projects

Once the need for an improvement is identified, the responsible Department of Transportation (DOT) identifies and reviews conceptual, operational and physical solutions for their effectiveness, anticipated cost, ease of implementation, and acceptability to the public. The improvement is then weighed against the other needs facing the jurisdiction, and then a decision is made whether or not to proceed with the project.

If a decision is made to proceed, the conceptual improvements are narrowed and refined. The ability of a shortlist of more promising alternatives to meet a variety of desired goals is then assessed. The process culminates with the identification of a preferred alternative, which would then be integrated into a region’s federally mandated transportation improvement plans.

Design and Procurement
If a decision is made to proceed, the DOT completes detailed engineering and design studies for the preferred alternative. When this process is completed, the project is put out to bid, and a contractor is selected on a competitive basis.

During the construction phase, the contractor completes the required work according to the design and implementation schedule established in the construction contract. The DOT supervises the construction and continues to operate existing facilities while the improvements are under way.

Once the construction has been completed to the satisfaction of the DOT, the new facilities are put into operation. The DOT normally assumes responsibility for the physical maintenance of the assets, and coordinates enforcement and incident management with the appropriate officials.

Unique Concerns Associated with HOT Lanes

The development of HOT lanes often requires modification to existing highways where space is constrained and the use of sophisticated traffic management and automated toll collection technologies, providing the opportunity for some DOTs to utilize new types of equipment.

While these particular issues are not unique HOT lane initiatives, others are when compared to typical highway or HOV projects. HOT lanes utilize traffic management techniques – pricing and occupancy requirements – in new ways, and in many jurisdictions HOT lanes may involve the introduction of tolls for the first time. These facts may require DOTs to establish new legal and institutional structures and operational capabilities before HOT lane projects can actually be implemented. They may also introduce unfamiliar project financing and operational approaches. Most importantly, they introduce public relations challenges that have the potential to bring HOT lane initiatives to an abrupt halt at nearly any stage of their development.

Figure 2 depicts the dynamics associated with the HOT lane implementation process. As shown, three primary streams of work are involved in the implementation process:

Figure 2.
HOT Lane Implementation Work Flows

This diagram depicts the different flows of work that are required as HOT lane projects move from preliminary investigations on to detailed planning and implementation.

How are HOT lanes different from traditional highway and HOV projects?

HOT lanes use market price and other management tools to provide dependable and superior travel conditions, particularly during highly congested peak travel periods.

  • HOT lanes provide a new and desirable transportation option for motorists and transit users in congested travel corridors.
  • HOT lanes generate revenues that can be used to pay for their implementation or to help underwrite other transportation improvements.
  • HOT lanes require considerable attention to roadway management, including monitoring traffic operation and responding to incidents.
  • HOT lanes offer new ways to apply traffic management and toll collection technologies.
  • HOT lanes require ongoing marketing and pubic awareness outreach efforts.
  • HOT lanes are likely to require interagency cooperation.

Technical tasks are relatively straightforward. During the formative stages of project development they involve design, environmental review, systems technologies, travel demand forecasting, financial planning, and operations management. Once a project is operational, they expand to include monitoring and evaluation, enforcement, and physical maintenance.

Institutional tasks involve creating the legal and organizational frameworks within which the project will take place. Some of these are likely to be new, particularly when DOTs are embarking on first-time HOT lane endeavors. As shown in Figure 2, most institutional and organizational arrangements will need to be finalized by the time project construction begins. Institutional issues are discussed in further detail in Chapter 3.

As reflected in Figure 2, outreach and consensus building activities are critical components of HOT lane implementation from the time preliminary investigations begin through the operational period. While the benefits of combining occupancy requirements, access, and price to manage demand bring clear transportation benefits, the concept is often difficult to embrace both for political decision makers and the public at large. Equity is also a key concern, as some constituencies are likely to argue that it is inequitable to provide premium service to those who appear more likely to afford it. This important issue is addressed in greater detail in Chapter 4 of this manual.

Milestones in the HOT Lane Implementation Process

As shown in Figure 3, there are a number of milestones that can be anticipated to occur in the different phases of the development of a HOT lane project identified in Section 2.1. These events range from policy decisions to the resolution of technical issues, the award of contracts, and facility implementation. As shown in Figure 3, the decision not to proceed is also a potential milestone that remains present throughout the development of any project.

Figure 3.
HOT Lane Planning and Implementation Milestones

This detailed flow diagram identifies milestones and critical decisions involved in the HOT lane implementation process.

Establishing Operational Objectives

As they define potential HOT lane projects, transportation officials will need to establish the overall operating objectives that will govern them. This involves determining the combination of management techniques – occupancy requirements, access, and price – that allow specific goals to be met. This is especially important for HOT lanes that involve real-time variably-priced tolls. Possible objectives include one or more of the following:

Certain of these issues may depend on the nature of the facility’s owner and operator. In cases where the private sector is responsible for developing and financing HOT lanes, their main objective may be to maximize revenue levels. Public agencies implementing HOT facilities may also be more focused on maximizing operational efficiencies such as throughput and travel time savings. However, it should be understood that profit maximization should generally coincide with the maximization of operational efficiencies, such as throughput and travel time savings.

Other HOT Lane Decisions

Several other important choices face transportation officials and policy makers as HOT lane projects become more clearly defined. These decisions can have repercussions on design, as well as equity issues and are likely to include:

1. Eligibility of vehicles. What size and type of vehicles should be eligible to use the HOT lane? If demand exceeds supply, how should users be selected?

2. Toll collection. How should the toll collection program be administered? Government agency (if so, which one?) or a private contractor under government contract?

3. Toll collection technology. Should the project use electronic toll collection or a permit decal system?

4. Intermediate access. What frequency of access for buy-in vehicles should be permitted?

5. Lane separation treatment. Should the HOV lanes be separated by a physical barrier, solid lines on the pavement, or no visible treatment?

Previous Section | Table of Contents | List of Contributors | List of Tables | List of Figures | Top of Section | Next Section

FHWA Home | Office of Travel Management | Value Pricing Pilot Program | Feedback