D.C. HOT lanes plan will bump into reality


It took Virginia many years to develop and execute it’s plan for HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway, seen here in Tysons Corner. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post

The District crossed a very minor threshold Wednesday with its program to create high occupancy toll lanes on the 14th Street Bridge and adjacent freeways.

That’s not to belittle the threshold. The District got the studies for this program added to an update that’s in the works for the region’s long-range transportation plan. Rather, it’s that the remaining steps are so large and complex.

One of the studies by the District Department of Transportation will look at adding High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to 14th Street Bridge. The background documents submitted to the region’s Transportation Planning Board for Wednesday’s vote refer to creating HOT lanes on a portion of the bridge by March 2015.

I asked Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director for policy and planning, about the date.

“That’s ambitious,” he said. “Very ambitious.”

I think a better word would be “impossible.” And not just for meeting a target less than a year away, but for any date in 2015.

Creating HOT lanes involves a lot more than putting down some lane markings and putting up some toll gantries. Ask the Virginians who did this on the Capital Beltway and are adding HOT lanes to I-95.

There are governmental reviews ahead at both the local and federal level. That process took many years in Virginia. Anytime planners want to mess with traffic patterns on the interstate system, they have a lot of questions to answer for many interested parties.

Engineering details also will be scrutinized. Coming up with a workable plan for the 14th Street Bridge is probably the easiest part of a HOT lanes program that ultimately would include I-395, 695 and 295.

What happens when drivers going through the bridge’s HOT lanes get to the Virginia side of the Potomac River? There almost certainly will not be comparable HOT lanes awaiting them in Arlington, because of the county government’s resistance to Virginia’s original HOT plan. Carpoolers can continue their trips in Virginia’s HOV lanes, but the Virginia HOT lanes won’t take over till southbound drivers are nearly to the Beltway in Springfield.

Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance expressed frustration with a lack of regional coordination: “Converting some existing 14th Street Bridge HOV lanes to express toll lanes makes regional sense only if Virginia’s I-395 corridor also has express toll lanes.”

Then there’s the infrastructure on the bridge. HOT lanes are free for drivers who meet the carpool requirements. Others pay a toll, collected electronically. There are no toll booths. So the District, which doesn’t have any tolling systems now, would need to acquire the electronic tolling technology and join the E-ZPass system. It would have to market the passes to drivers, perhaps also adopting the Virginia system that offers a specialized transponder, called E-ZPass Flex, with a carpool setting.

The company that operates the 495 Express Lanes engaged in a year-long public education and marketing campaign to prepare travelers for the HOT lanes experience. The company also had to arrange for state police to enforce the rules against cheating.

What style of tolling would be used? Maryland’s Intercounty Connector has a toll that varies with the time of day, peaking for the morning and afternoon rush hours. Virginia went with a different system for the HOT lanes. The toll can change frequently, adjusting to current demand for the lanes. And there’s no upper limit on the toll.

Such tolling systems use pricing to manage congestion. The price rises to discourage drivers from using the tolled lanes at that time, so the remaining drivers are getting a quicker, more reliable commute than they would in regular lanes.

The toll rates manage congestion, but the toll revenue goes to pay off the expense of adding capacity to the transportation system.

The District Department of Transportation says its goals for the HOT lanes system are similar to those of Maryland and Virginia. It wants to manage congestion and reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles coming into the city. Those are fine ideas and worthy of study.

How will they apply to the 14th Street Bridge, the first segment of this multi-part HOT lanes program? DDOT doesn’t plan to add capacity to the bridge. If you’re in a carpool coming up I-395 from Virginia, you use the 14th Street Bridge now. There’s no added incentive to use it under the HOT lanes system. If you’re a solo driver coming up from Virginia, what’s the incentive to get in a tolled lane on a bridge you already have to cross?

Travelers will be asking these same questions about the bridge toll, and many will be coming to the conclusion that managing congestion equals commuter tax.

Prediction: The District will still be grappling with these issues at the time its planning documents predict the bridge’s converted lanes should be opening. And the HOT lanes for the freeways are way over the horizon.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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