Keith Johnson, Deseret News
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters discusses funding and other transportation issues with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in Salt Lake City on Monday.

Tolls for using the express lanes along I-15 will be calculated electronically within the next two years, the Utah Department of Transportation said Monday.

The department wants drivers to pay tolls for the HOV lanes by using electronic chips that would be placed on their vehicles. Sensors installed along the HOV lanes would detect when motorists are there and would start keeping track of the toll costs. The charge would vary throughout the day, based on traffic congestion and whether the motorist was driving during peak traffic periods.

UDOT hopes the system will give drivers an incentive to possibly alter their schedules to take advantage of the cheaper tolls at nonpeak hours. The system aims to help spread rush-hour traffic over larger periods of time.

"This system will be a major part of our future," said Carlos Braceras, the department's deputy director. "Now, some people think that their use of the road is free, but they're forgetting they pay the gas tax. By making people aware of the costs to use the road and the express lanes, we're hoping to spread peak congestion and save people time and money."

UDOT officials made the announcement at a news conference held along a stretch of I-15 in Draper. U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters attended the event. Peters also met with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. later Monday to discuss transportation funding.

UDOT is still working to solve many of the details necessary to implement the new toll system. Braceras said that some unanswered questions include how pricing will work, how drivers will obtain HOV sensors, and where signs displaying the price of using the lane will be placed.

Peters said a system similar to the one proposed by UDOT is now operating in California, along a 12-mile stretch of state Road 91. The tolls there are based on an algorithm that calculates the current congestion on the road and the dollar amount equivalent to the driver's time being saved.

UDOT executive director John Njord said that motorists who use the HOV lanes in Utah now pay about $50. Under the new system, the electronic fare would depend on the time drivers spent in the HOV lane every month.

"People I know using the HOV lane say that it saves them at least a half hour every day in each direction during peak hours," he said. "There are about 1,700 monthly customers using the HOV lanes, and we'd like to see that number grow to 70,000."

Njord said that he believes the cost for those using the HOV lane this year will be comparable to the amount daily users will pay under the new electronic system. For drivers who use the express lane only once or twice a month, the cost would be cheaper.

Peters said the new electronic system would allow more drivers to take advantage of the HOV lanes and improve traffic speeds along I-15.

She also unveiled a new proposal from the Bush administration that she said would make it easier for states to receive approval and funding for projects. Under the proposal, state leaders could receive a lump sum of federal funds for transportation if they could prove a project's benefits for taxpayers would outweigh its costs.

"Under our approach, cities will no longer have to slice and dice every federal dollar to qualify for niche programs that do little to improve communities or their commutes," Peters said. "Instead, projects that improve commutes, give taxpayers a good deal and cut congestion get funding."

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