Not Such a HOT Idea

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

As a longtime commuter in the interstates 95 and 395 high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, I am against the Virginia Transportation Department's proposal to convert them to high-occupancy toll lanes.

The Post has reported that tolls in the HOT lanes may be as high as $40 per round trip. That would be $800 per month, if paid every workday, from Woodbridge to the Pentagon. That truly would put the project in the category of "Lexus Lanes." Thank goodness HOV-3 vehicles would be permitted, at least initially, to use them for free.

However, my reason for opposing HOT lanes goes beyond the Lexus issue.

My objection is that converting I-395 to a HOT road would put perhaps the most successful HOV system in the country at risk.

This HOV system has been operating for decades. It is the mass-transit mode for what I estimate to be 30,000 people each weekday. No other HOT-lane conversion in the country has been imposed on a carpool corridor that was as successful as this one is. And HOT-lane agreements typically award the private developer a contract for 50 to 60 years. So, as I understand it, Virginians would be handing over taxpayer-paid infrastructure to a private concern for decades to come and would be relinquishing much control over it.

Furthermore, because it would be a for-profit venture, the developer naturally will push for tolls and policies that maximize profit. But what happens if the projected profits don't materialize or there are financial losses?

If that occurs, I believe that either new lanes the developer has promised to add on I-95 south to Fredericksburg will not be built or the state will allow tolls to be charged on HOV-3 vehicles. The latter would reduce the incentive to carpool, because regular lanes would remain free.

I am also skeptical of "dynamic tolling," in which toll rates would be adjusted as often as every few minutes to ease traffic flow. The theory is that when there are too many vehicles in HOT lanes, the tolls will be increased, thus encouraging cars to move to non-toll lanes. Sorry, but by the time the lanes are clogged, it will be too late to make such an adjustment. Does anyone really believe that toll payers will wait in line to get out of the HOT lanes to move into slower-moving regular lanes?

Unfortunately, the success of this entire project depends on dynamic tolling. I submit that the whole experiment will fail because of the corridor's traffic density, exit constraints and the 14th Street Bridge bottleneck. No system of dynamic tolling anywhere that I know of has been tried in a corridor as complex and highly traveled as this one, so I-95 commuters essentially will be guinea pigs.

I also have concerns about toll enforcement and safety. How will toll payment and carpool occupancy in the HOT lanes be verified without causing chaos and inconvenience? Can the I-395 segment accommodate all of the project's lanes and include shoulders wide enough to ensure driver safety?

Finally, shouldn't Congress have something to say about a private developer using a federally funded interstate highway to make a profit and disrupt a successful HOV system?

-- Bob Hugman

Woodbridge

The writer has lived in Prince William County and has carpooled to Rosslyn in the HOV lanes since 1988. His e-mail address is rhugman@hotmail.com.


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