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New Tactics For Dealing With Traffic

Va., Md. Planners Look Beyond HOV

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page B01

Al Waitkus is going 5 mph. It's been like this for an hour, and he figures he's got at least another hour before he gets home.

This, he doesn't like.

Maryland officials say almost half the vehicles using the Interstate 270 HOV lanes have too few occupants to qualify. (Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)

Current Conditions: Get live traffic reports, plan your best route home or set up personal traffic alerts.

To his left, he sees cars in the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes happily speeding along, many of them cheaters.

This, he really doesn't like.

"I'm looking at HOV right now, and two out of every five [vehicles] have only one person," he said on a cell phone near Woodbridge. "I get envious watching them move that fast. They don't need an HOV. [Getting rid of it] would relieve a lot of this congestion."

Whether the Washington region needs HOV lanes is as pertinent a question among transportation planners as among such frustrated commuters as Waitkus. Chronic cheating and growing congestion have led officials to explore new concepts that they said are more likely to ease tie-ups.

In Virginia, where HOV lanes were created in 1969 to provide a faster ride for those willing to travel with others, proposals exist to convert HOV lanes on Interstates 95 and 395 into high-occupancy toll lanes. Solo drivers could pay a fee to use them. State officials also are considering adding HOT lanes to the Capital Beltway. The only HOV lanes planned are part of a 3.8-mile widening of I-66 near Manassas.

Planners in Maryland are no longer thinking HOV at all and instead are pursuing express toll lanes on several major highways. The fees that would fund the construction of the lanes would be paid by all drivers and would rise during times when traffic gets heavier.

"We believe there's actually more congestion management potential from express toll lanes than HOV lanes," said Neil J. Pedersen, chief of the Maryland State Highway Administration. "Our thinking has evolved to that, and it's a combination of looking at what can most effectively manage congestion together with a very practical funding issue."

Despite the existence of HOV lanes on several highways and a sustained effort to encourage carpooling, only 7 percent of the region's residents drive to work with others, slightly fewer than in the nation as a whole, according to local and national polls by The Washington Post released this month.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said creating carpool lanes was a very effective way to ease congestion, trailing such fixes as building new roads, public transportation and removing disabled vehicles. Nearly 60 percent favored HOT lanes, and the region split on adjustable toll roads, suggesting that the region's residents are open to the ideas.

To measure attitudes toward commuting, The Post interviewed 1,003 randomly selected adults in the Washington area from Jan. 27 to 31. At the same time, The Post joined with ABC News and Time magazine to conduct a nationwide survey of 1,204 adults that asked many of the same questions.

Transportation officials said the problem with carpooling is that some HOV lanes are filled with too many vehicles, while others have too few travelers to justify the lanes. Cheaters also anger law-abiders and stall traffic. Regardless, state officials said they couldn't afford new HOV lanes even if they wanted them.

They said charging drivers tolls would raise money to finance the construction, allow for better enforcement and guarantee a smooth ride.

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