Lane Gains

Friday, June 24, 2005

IT WON'T CLIP everybody's commute time on the Capital Beltway, but Virginia is leading the way to some speedier options for some harried motorists: high-occupancy toll -- or HOT -- lanes. In late April the state signed agreements with two private firms to build two lanes in each direction on 14 miles of the Beltway from Springfield to Georgetown Pike. Obvious question: What will happen to traffic entering Maryland if that state doesn't follow suit? Maryland transportation officials are moving in the direction of Beltway HOT lanes -- as they should -- but more than a few Montgomery County Council members, state lawmakers and expected candidates for local office are balking.

Construction on the Virginia side -- the first major expansion of the Capital Beltway in a generation -- could start as early as next year, according to state officials, who hope for a 2010 opening. The new lanes are to be separated from other traffic and will be "HOT-HOV" -- vehicles containing three or more people would ride free; others would pay tolls that would vary with the volume of traffic.

Private companies would pay for the $900 million project, in exchange for all or part of the toll revenue. State officials say that there would be a cap to prevent "obscene" profits -- an important provision that needs more definition.

Maryland officials are exploring express toll lanes along the state's 42 miles of the Capital Beltway, as well as on Interstate 270, the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. As reported by The Post's Steven Ginsberg, the Virginia project represents the first step in what regional officials hope can be an extensive network, including additional lanes on parts of Interstates 95 and 395. Given the staggering cost of addressing long-delayed, desperately needed road relief in both states, the concept of public-private financing ought to be refined and tested on these and other transportation improvements.

Opponents of a wider Capital Beltway in Maryland are concerned about how many residents would be uprooted (a state study shows 40), about how much money and attention might go to this project rather than to a Purple Line transit connection, and about what HOT-lane critics have come to call "Lexus lanes" that would give monied motorists a privilege that some other drivers could not afford.

Possible uprootings are a sensitive issue, though not impossible to resolve. If tolls, along with private partnerships, can cover most of the lane projects, as Virginia envisions, widening in Maryland need not compete with Purple Line progress. The Lexus-lane arguments have paled in states where HOT lanes are in play; studies show that people of all incomes use them when they need to get somewhere swiftly.

Faced with increasing congestion on area roads, politicians should not rule out pricing mechanisms as one part of a solution. If there are efficient ways to charge drivers for the traffic, pollution or wear-and-tear they cause, everyone will benefit.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company