HOT Lane Plan Comes With Promises

"If they can do this and provide commuters with another choice and provide transit, then HOT lanes live up to their promise," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Private companies looking to build and operate toll lanes along interstates 95 and 395 from the Pentagon south said yesterday that the lanes will maintain minimum speeds of 55 mph inside the Capital Beltway, even during rush hours.

New details on the project came a day before a key vote on the project to convert two existing carpool lanes into three "high-occupancy toll" or HOT lanes. Tolls would fluctuate based on the amount of traffic to ensure that the lanes remain free-flowing. Carpools of three or more and buses could use the lanes for free.

In exchange for permission to build the road and keep toll revenues, Fluor Virginia of Arlington and Transurban of Melbourne, Australia, have also promised, among other things, to pay for $390 million in new bus service, six new park-and-ride lots with 3,000 spaces, new interchanges and an extension of the current roadway to eliminate a daily bottleneck in Dumfries.

"If they can do this and provide commuters with another choice and provide transit, then HOT lanes live up to their promise,'' said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, made up of state and local officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District, will consider the project today, along with a controversial proposal to add a lane to Interstate 66 inside the Beltway.

The $882 million HOT lane plan faces opposition from representatives in Prince William County, who contend that the lanes would ruin a successful carpool facility and charge drivers exorbitant amounts in tolls. Some of the most virulent opponents of the project are "slugs" -- commuters who form impromptu carpools in order to use the HOV lanes, which require three or more passengers per vehicle. The informal but highly structured slugging system has made the I-95/395 corridor one of the most successful carpool lanes in the country.

"Carpoolers who pick up sluggers today do so to save time. We think it's even more attractive, because in addition to time savings, we've now monetized the value of picking up slugs,'' said Tim Young, a project planner with Transurban.

HOT lanes are alluring to transportation planners because, for a price, they virtually guarantee congestion-free rides for transit at a time when there is little public money to expand roadways.

According to the revised application, there would be no tollbooths on the highway. Instead, drivers would use EZ-Pass-like electronic transponders that would automatically deduct tolls. Electronic signs would continuously update toll amounts.

The application does not say how carpools would be distinguished from toll-paying cars.

The companies and the Virginia Department of Transportation say speeds of 55 mph inside the Beltway and 65 mph outside the Beltway can be maintained by continually increasing tolls until they become so expensive that drivers decide to take their chances on the free lanes.

"There will be no price caps on the level of tolls," the revised application states.

Company officials say drivers in the HOT lanes would pay as much as a dollar a mile in some spots along the 36-mile route during peak times, which would make it the highest rate for a commute in the country. They say an average trip on the HOT lanes will be less than 10 miles and cost $6 to $8; a trip from the Pentagon to Prince William Parkway would cost $10 to $11.

But regional transportation planners estimate that the cost for a rush-hour ride on the lanes probably will be far steeper: as much as $1.60 a mile in crowded segments. They estimate that a 21-mile, rush-hour trip from the Pentagon to Prince William Parkway would cost as much as $22.28. A round trip during peak hours could cost $41.46.

Those tolls are for the average daily commute, not special occasions. During bad weather or accidents, the tolls will have to be raised to keep traffic moving at a fast clip.

Project proponents point to the $390 million in transit improvements the companies are promising, which will pay for 184 new clean-fuel buses, a new bus station at the Lorton VRE station, a new bus maintenance facility and 3.1 million vehicle hours of additional bus service. But the companies stopped short of promising to dedicate the new third lane to transit.

Planners for the companies also say they will fix the evening bottleneck where the two HOV lanes merge back into the regular lanes in Dumfries. Under the new designs, drivers exiting to Route 234 would be merged into the general lanes north of the exit. One of the lanes would take a new fly-over ramp to Route 619, and the remaining lane would merge into the general lanes south of Garrisonville Road.

The northern terminus of the project is at Eads Street near the Pentagon. Commuters heading into the District would still have to fight their way across the 14th Street bridge. Federal officials are studying ways to improve the congested Potomac crossing.

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