HOT lanes take heat from taxpayer

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 29, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The lobby for the high-occupancy toll lanes has overlooked two key issues: First and foremost is the fact that local, state and federal taxpayer dollars paid for and maintain the highway system. The cost has been amortized over many years. These highways belong to us, the taxpayers. How is it that a foreign company can come in and charge us for use of, or manage our access to, the very highways we’ve paid for?

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

Second and no less important: How successful have HOT lanes been elsewhere?

Can the HOT proponents cite examples where HOT lanes alleviated traffic congestion, decreased travel time or made any substantial contribution to efficient high-volume traffic management?

Chris Soto, Woodbridge

DG: Decisions about how interstate highways will be used are made by state legislatures, governors and members of Congress — Americans all. The people we have chosen to represent us don’t want to make investments serious enough to maintain the U.S. transportation system, let alone modernize it.

Americans continue to think of the gas tax as an appropriate way to finance highway maintenance and construction. Yet they resist increases in the gas tax. Virginia, for its part, hasn’t raised the state gas tax in a quarter-century. Steel, asphalt, concrete and labor cost a bit more now.

So are we going to stand on principle and say that we’ve already paid to build and maintain the highway system, despite our growing concerns about traffic congestion?

Yes.

In this winter’s legislative session, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the General Assembly provided the most recent evidence of our collective decision not to throw any more serious money at the transportation system.

Meanwhile, what are politicians to do with voters who are upset that it takes so long to get anywhere?

If the states and Congress could finance serious transit improvements without serious investment — if they could make their voters happy as commuters without making them sad as taxpayers — they would have figured it out by now.

Caught in a bind, they’re attracted to this third way of tolling and traffic management on a few highways. It’s not an overall attack on traffic congestion, but it could help in some corridors. (I’m cynical about the political motives but hopeful about the results for travelers.)

I wrote recently about a Government Accountability Office study of HOT lane (also called Express Lane) operations across the nation [Commuter page, Feb. 12]. The report shows that the tolled lanes can be effective at providing more capacity while managing traffic so that drivers get a more reliable trip. They can even help the performance in the untolled lanes.

But it’s not a slam-dunk case: Local leaders as well as federal officials need to monitor whether this tolling concept blooms where it’s planted. Is the traffic flowing more freely because of tolling and traffic management or just because there are extra lanes? Do the HOT lanes move more people or just more cars? Will tolling policies put a priority on moving people or on paying off the road’s bondholders?

Where’s the access?

A Montgomery County driver vents about navigating the Capital Beltway/Dulles Access Highway connections.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I have enough trouble with it, and I live in the area, but for out-of-town visitors with a rental car, it is at best hazardous and at worst a gateway to a trip around the Beltway in the wrong direction.

If you are going to and from Montgomery, as we and our visitors are, here is what you face.

To Dulles International Airport: Construction has obscured the entrance to the State Route 267/Dulles Access Highway exit from the Beltway. Once you’re on, you must immediately move all the way left to get to the poorly marked Dulles Access Highway, or you will enter the Dulles Toll Road toll plaza.

I was pleasantly surprised that when I did this recently, better lane markings were in place to make it a little more obvious. Signage is still limited.

From Dulles: If you spot the initial right-hand exit for the Beltway from the Dulles Access Highway, you must immediately move to your right across an increasing number of lanes to get to the Beltway exits. In the past, signage had been terrible. If you did not get into the proper lane, you would be heading toward Richmond instead of Silver Spring, or perhaps be on your way to downtown Washington via the link to Interstate 66.

Recently, I was surprised to see a new arrangement: no more lane markings, just two exits, very close to each other — one marked Interstate 95 South, the other Interstate 95 North.

Our family was traveling in three cars at night. Our tally: (a) One driver slowed down to a crawl, thought through the new exit arrangement and made the correct choice; b) one driver simply stopped, confused, in between the two exits, happy that there was not much traffic, then chose correctly; and (c) one driver exited to I-95 South, the wrong direction. Asked to remember whether home is I-95 North or I-95 South in an instant, we did not do well, and we all live here! For the visitor, all of this is an unfortunate welcome to Washington.

What is needed is a series of flyovers — overpasses connecting the Beltway directly with the Dulles Access Road without merging with VA 267 traffic.

Joe Steinbock, Silver Spring

DG: Completion late this year of the Interstate 495 Express Lanes (HOT lanes) project will help some, but it isn’t a cure for everything that ails this interchange.

The HOT lanes construction has been disorienting for drivers trying to reach many of the exits along the Beltway, including the one for the Dulles Toll Road and Dulles Access Highway. But that should vanish with the work zones.

The project includes flyover ramps from the Dulles Access Highway to the Beltway. That should reduce eastbound drivers’ heart-in-the-mouth feeling of being on the prairie in the middle of a buffalo stampede.

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