If they work as designed, such high-occupancy toll lanes may be the way of the future for planners trying to cope with the public’s desire for congestion relief and determination not to pay more taxes for a solution.
But this new frontier is lined with questions, not least of which is the role of the private sector in operating a vital piece of the region’s transportation infrastructure.
The partnership of the Transurban and Fluor companies that built the lanes absorbed much of the nearly $2 billion in costs in exchange for the right to collect tolls on Virginia’s newest highway for most of this century.
There is no cap on how high those tolls can rise. The operators will adjust the toll to the demand for lane use, guaranteeing travelers a trip that is quick, consistent and relatively free of congestion. The toll structure also will create an incentive for commuters to share rides, either by carpool, vanpool or bus.
With high-occupancy toll lanes, commonly known as HOT lanes, the government gets a break on the construction costs while giving commuters more choices for getting through some of the nation’s worst traffic.
“The HOT approach provides an option, not a substitute,” said Alan Pisarski, a Northern Virginian who wrote the influential study “Commuting in America.” “Everyone can continue as before, but there is now an opportunity to pay extra for premium service when it is critical to the user.”
But is this new segment of I-495 really the highway of the future?
Don’t look for a quick answer. Although this concept has been applied around the world, the Beltway’s HOT lanes didn’t come out of a box. They include unusual features specific to this market. Peter Samuel, editor of TOLLROADSnews, a Frederick-based Web site that monitors the evolution of transportation policy, said the tolling system is “a very ambitious and complicated format with so many entries and exits.” The project even had to develop a new type of E-ZPass.
At the outset, the quarter-million daily drivers who know the Beltway won’t know the HOT lanes. They may be slow to adapt to the electronic tolling and to the new access points along the 14 miles between Springfield and Tysons Corner. They must deal with left entrances and exits and new red lights at some interchanges.
Since adding four lanes to the Beltway will almost certainly ease traffic congestion overall in the early going, drivers may stick with the free ride in the regular lanes.
The HOT lanes also could have some unintended consequences, changing traffic patterns on adjacent commuter routes.
North of the Potomac River, Montgomery County officials are concerned that the additional lanes on the Virginia side of the Beltway, unmatched by Maryland, will put even more stress on traffic at the American Legion Bridge.