Is there a better way than HOT lanes on I-95?

Robert Thomson
Columnist October 1, 2011

While construction continues on the Capital Beltway’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes, Virginia is pressing ahead with its plan to add them to Interstate 95.

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

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

One of the underlying assumptions for the HOT lanes seems to be that people will continue to move farther south along the I-95 corridor and still work in the D.C. metro area. If that is true, then another major interstate corridor has to come into being, or I-95 will grow to eight or 10 lanes in each direction.

That will not be cheap. There are only a few entrances to the District, and unless the government — federal or District — creates new access points from Virginia, then we are whistling in the wind. The backup at the 14th, Roosevelt, Memorial and Key bridges will expand farther south, and the potential benefit of any HOT lanes or other lanes will be gone.

South of the Beltway to the Woodbridge area, there are now 10 lanes, of which two are reversible and four available for general use in each direction. The reversibles are, except for the 51 / 2 hours of high-occupancy vehicle time, available to all for free. If the reversibles are restricted 24/7 [by the HOT lanes program], then the capacity of the road is decreased.

We might be much better off building the western bypass. It would take traffic off I-495/95 in the D.C. area. More Virginia Railway Express capacity should be explored. It might be cheaper to expand the rail lines to Union Station.

— Paul Signet, Springfield

Yes, Virginia's HOT lanes proposal for I-95 is strongly rooted in calculations that the population in the Washington-Richmond corridor will continue to expand and will seek employment in the D.C. area. VRE also sees its future tied to hauling workers a long way up along that corridor. There has been some talk about extending Metrorail south to the Woodbridge area, but there’s no realistic plan to finance such an improvement.

Neither is there a plan on the table to finance another highway — a western bypass, for example — that would take traffic around the D.C. area and relieve the pressure on I-95/395.

The only proposal with political and financial support to proceed is the HOT lanes project. That’s something that riles Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

He thinks Virginia has failed to look at a combination of alternatives: Extend the HOV lanes, invest in bus service and carpool facilities, invest in VRE, improve the communication technology that can match up commuters to share rides, determine how to let people live closer to where they work.

Among his other ideas: Consider going back to requiring four people per vehicle in the HOV lanes and consider a publicly owned toll road, rather than turning over an asset such as I-95 to a private company to operate long term.

How can HOT work?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am one of those who believes HOT lanes are going to have the exact opposite effect from what is envisioned. I fail to see how allowing more single-occupancy vehicles to travel on our highways is going to lessen congestion. I am also concerned that this will adversely affect slugging, which is a successful, decentralized, no-taxpayer-cost program to relieve congestion.

I think the conventional HOV lanes should extend all the way to Richmond. I also believe that our existing roads are not used to full capacity because of the way people drive. For example, drivers fail to keep proper distance, travel at speed, rubberneck, ride the left lane, don’t use the full length of the entrance ramps and fail to allow others to merge.

We really need to move toward mandated auto drives on vehicles that would allow vehicles entering designated smart corridors (such as I-95) to be controlled by the highway until the driver desires to exit. This is not that big of a leap from the auto controls that are being installed on vehicles that can keep distance from cars in front of them or park themselves.

— John Provost, Burke

Waiting for smart technology to overcome stupid drivers might be one alternative too many for the present.

As the HOT lanes proposal advances, Virginia needs to show more forceful support for the very successful slugging system of carpooling. For example, the state could find a way to ensure that slugs don’t have to pay a fee for the E-ZPass style transponders they will be required to use in the HOT lanes.

But slugging’s survival might be aided by the state’s decision to abandon the portion of the HOT lanes that would have replaced the HOV lanes north of the Beltway. 

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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