Va. HOV drivers: A privileged class on I-95?

Robert Thomson
Columnist May 23, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Your description of the irrational, bureaucratic “rules” for the use of Virginia high-occupancy vehicle lanes by hybrid cars is a prime example of the idiocy of government attempting to favor one class of citizens over another for supposedly good ends [Dr. Gridlock, May 13].

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

I drive a Honda CRX of some age that gets 38 miles per gallon on the highway. That is as good as many hybrids and better than some. It is also a two-seater, so it could never qualify for HOV-3 lanes during rush hour.

To the degree that my car uses less gas per mile than a hybrid, it is irrational to favor the hybrid.

But that’s government for you.

I’m 78, and there is zero chance that even in a three-seat car I could carpool, so I am penalized for something I cannot cure. And it is a penalty to chug along in bumper-to-bumper traffic while the HOV lanes are almost empty.

Not equal protection of the laws!

Gordon White, Deltaville, Va.

DG: White, a retired newspaperman, still drives to and through the Washington area via Interstate 95. In addition to contributing ideas about the best holiday routes along the East Coast, he also has written to say he just hates the HOV rules, which restrict the use of those lanes to carpoolers and drivers with exemptions.

This time, he focused his fury on one of those exemptions, which allows certain types of hybrid vehicles to use the lanes even if the drivers don’t meet the carpool requirements.

I don’t object to government intervention in the transportation system. Most of the transportation system — whether it’s the interstate highways or Metro transit — is the result of government intervention.

And I don’t have a problem with the high-occupancy vehicle system, which turned carpoolers into a privileged class of travelers. They earned it. They organized their commutes in a way that helps other travelers by removing cars from the rush-hour flow.

But I do share White’s concern about the weirdness of the hybrid exemption. This was of dubious value from the start. By encouraging solo driving, the hybrid exemption added to traffic congestion and diminished the incentive to form carpools.

The hybrid exemption was capped on I-95/395 and Interstate 66, but in the process, Virginia created even more rules, which drivers have difficulty following. That’s what happens when the rules are about managing the original mistake.

In a couple of years, the hybrid exemption for I-95 will go away, but we’ll have something new to argue about. After a period of dormancy, Virginia is rapidly advancing its plan to convert the I-95 HOV lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes.

Drivers in the corridor might have noticed that the HOV lanes have been closed from time to time for preliminary engineering work. The Virginia government hopes construction will begin this summer, and the lanes will be open in 2015.

The HOT lanes project adds tolls for car drivers who don’t meet the HOV-3 rules and subtracts the hybrid exemption. Drivers still will be paying for the privilege of solo driving in express lanes, just as they did by purchasing a hybrid car.

At least there will be a way of controlling the traffic flow, through the variable tolling, which rises and falls with the level of congestion.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said Virginia has failed to evaluate the potential impact of the I-95 HOT lanes on the commuter carpool arrangement known as slugging.

The state government, which at the moment seems to be achieving a lot more for solo drivers than for people willing to share rides, should find a way to protect the interests of carpoolers.

steer clear

After seeing an article about sharing the road in which I pointed out that bicyclists are banned from using the sidewalks in certain areas, a District resident wrote to say we don’t pay enough attention to problems caused by cyclists who endanger pedestrians.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The mention in your Metro article [Commuter page, May 13] that bicyclists should respect pedestrians gave me at least a small ray of hope that this growing problem is beginning to be recognized.

The lack of a uniform law [on where to ride] confuses people. And one thing you did not mention is that the law does require bicyclists to yield to pedestrians throughout the city. The last time I saw that happen in my Dupont Circle neighborhood was never. And the last time any biker came up from behind and let me know by word or bell also was never.

Yet every day, I see speeding bicyclists making parents with small children in strollers, persons carrying groceries or walking dogs, the elderly and the disabled yield or risk getting hit. The last time I saw a pedestrian standing at the corner waiting for the light to change get scraped by a bicyclist was last week.

No one seems to care about the danger involved. Particularly with the elderly, falling out of the way to avoid a speeding bicyclist and hitting one’s head on the sidewalk can be a death sentence.

So thanks for at least taking a first step in the direction of making bicyclists start thinking about what they’re doing. When I’m not walking, I ride a bike, and have since I was 9. But I had to learn all the traffic rules first before I was allowed out, and I’ve followed them ever since. From what I see here, many bicyclists don’t even know the basics, or don’t care.

Jeanne Mallett, the District

DG: A cyclist’s responsibility to keep other travelers safe is no less than that of a driver’s.

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