Virginia HOT lanes heading toward reality

Robert Thomson
Columnist January 13, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

At present, fortunately for me, I don’t have to pay tolls to get to work in Quantico. I know I’d choke a little if I had to pay them every day. So I’m always amazed that folks fork over a toll for commuting to work. I’m even more amazed that folks will pay a variable toll, which is higher at rush hour. Do these same people complain about gas taxes and income taxes to pay for roads?

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

Ten trips at rush hour per week adds up to 500-plus trips annually. At $4 each way [on Maryland’s Intercounty Connector], that’s $2,000 annually in tolls. Let’s say the average commute requires one gallon of gas. That’s 500-plus gallons annually. At $1 per-gallon tax, that’s only a quarter of what the tolls cost. People — or is it only lawmakers? — squawk about gas taxes yet seemingly have little problem with tolls.

— Eric Pittelkau, Springfield

I don’t recall hearing from a driver who likes paying tolls. (If you’re out there, let me know.) Drivers do tell me they think tolls are a fine way to finance highway construction, as long as the tolls aren’t imposed on their routes.

But Congress is stalemated on how to finance transportation construction at the levels we say we want. Meanwhile, state legislators wonder why they should be any braver than their federal counterparts.

So travelers are left to sort through their remaining options and make the same calculations our letter writer is making. Fewer and fewer of them will experience this as an academic exercise.

After the Intercounty Connector opened, I heard from many commuters who tested it out and said: “Nice road. I wouldn’t pay four bucks for it.” I think they’ll continue to feel that way about the $4 rush-hour toll. Who’s going to set aside $2,000 a year for that? But in the absence of other prospects for congestion relief, they will start to refine their calculations and use the parts of the connector that meet the time-money threshold in certain situations.

Across the Potomac, Virginia will open four tolled lanes on the Capital Beltway this year. The opening of the connector was a big deal because it was the region’s first brand-new highway in a generation. But opening tolled lanes on the Beltway will be an even bigger deal. The Beltway system will be more complex and much more visible.

For me, the reality of the thing started to sink in last week, when Transurban, the company that will operate the new Beltway lanes, launched a campaign that combines education and marketing.

Even the name is getting a makeover. During the many years of debate, planning and construction, we’ve referred to the high-occupancy toll lanes. I hate that name. It’s a bureaucratic term that doesn’t clearly convey the function, though everyone seems to like “HOT” lanes as an acronym.

As opening day comes in sight, Transurban has begun to call them “Express Lanes.” That’s how the signs along the Beltway will read, to comply with Federal Highway Administration rules. (The feds can’t give us more money, but they still can give us rules.)

Transurban managers and Virginia Department of Transportation officials will spend a lot of time this year attempting to make these new lanes user-friendly for commuters who have never used such things before.

As part of the campaign, Transurban unveiled a Web site Monday targeting its potential customers. Several other Web sites have focused on the HOT lanes as a construction project, but this one, 495expresslanes.com, concentrates on the product.

Reviewing the site, it’s easier to understand how to drive the lanes alone and pay the tolls than it is to figure out how to find a commuter bus that will use the lanes to speed your commute. I hope Virginia will be sharing that information with commuters soon.

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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