Maryland needs to fix HOV problem

Robert Thomson
Columnist November 26, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I have been driving up Interstates 495 and 270 from Bethesda to Gaithersburg twice a week for the past month or so about 4:30 to 5 p.m. weekdays; in other words, during afternoon rush hour when the northbound High Occupancy Vehicle lane rules are in force. I enter at River Road and exit at Exit 10, which is about a 15-mile stretch. During that time I have observed the following:

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. View Archive

Approximately 40 percent of the cars in the HOV lane have only the driver, so they’re illegal in that lane. Approximately 10 percent of the vehicles in the HOV lane are trucks, so they shouldn’t be there, either.

No HOV enforcement at all. No police on the left-hand roadside (even when there’s a wide left-hand breakdown lane). Not one illegal vehicle pulled over by the police.

What’s the point of marking HOV lanes if they are wildly disregarded? In my opinion, either Maryland should remove the HOV signs and open the left-hand lane legally to all drivers, or it should start enforcing its own HOV rules. I’d prefer enforcement, but the current situation encourages drivers to disregard the HOV requirements. This is not good traffic policy.

— William Franklin,
Chevy Chase

Yes, cheating in the HOV lanes is a serious problem in both Maryland and Virginia. I’ve seen police positioned in the I-270 median west of the Capital Beltway to enforce the rules, and there have been well-publicized crackdowns on violators. But the number of violators overwhelms the number of enforcers.

Does that mean we declare the cheaters to have won and we abandon the HOV concept? Not without a fight to preserve the concept, which is that highway congestion can be managed through lane controls. The alternative isn’t very attractive: There’s not enough gas tax money to build new lanes.

Laws could be changed and HOV lanes opened to all traffic, but then what? They’d fill up in a hurry.

Instead, we need to develop more effective systems of lane management. Virginia is going with high-occupancy-toll lanes, turning HOV lanes over to private management. The private company collects money from drivers who don’t meet the HOV requirement while still allowing carpoolers and buses a free ride.

The HOT lanes are separated from other traffic, solving one of the huge problems with enforcement by preventing cheaters from easily slipping in and out of the lanes. The profit motive also helps. Every cheater represents lost revenue, so the company will subsidize the cost of enforcement.

Maryland has not decided how to evolve its lane management system. It’s adding lanes to the highway network, but they are express toll lanes. The state needs to figure out how to upgrade its HOV lanes, and soon.

When riders become ill

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Got delayed on the Yellow Line once again by a sick passenger. I have wondered many times why Metro delays countless trains rather than removing the person, unless they have injuries that do not allow movement, such as fractures.

I don’t think I am hardhearted, but Metro should set up a screened-off area with a place to lie down on a folding bed and allow the person to remain there. My guess is that most of the folks whose sickness causes these delays get over the illness fairly quickly.

— Jim Currie,

Alexandria

People get sick, and it’s bound to happen on Metrorail since it carries hundreds of thousands of people daily. Very few riders who become ill aboard trains would want a diagnosis from the train operator, the station manager or their fellow passengers. Few would willingly submit to being dragged from the train so that everyone else could continue the commute.

Often the train must hold at a station until emergency responders arrive. Metro began placing mechanics at some stations so they could reach problem trains quickly, but a passenger isn’t a busted air-conditioner or a jammed door, and shouldn’t be treated like one.

Metro has figured out some ways to avoid unloading the entire train and taking it out of service for one sick rider, but not to avoid the delays necessary to bring qualified help to the rider. If the train operator is notified that a rider is ill, the operator needs to find out what’s wrong and notify the operations center for further assistance.

The train has to stop. The operator can’t simply suggest a station down the line where medical personnel might be able to come aboard.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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