HOT Lanes' Allure

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

NO INCANTATION or conjurer's trick will magically ease the traffic clogging the asphalt arteries on which Washington area commuters depend. Every projection suggests that the region's population growth will yield additional congestion that is likely to outstrip the road network's capacity to absorb it. The most that can be expected from planners -- and it is already a lot -- is that they embrace forward-thinking strategies to mitigate growth's impact.

By that measure, a proposal to build high-occupancy toll lanes along Interstates 95 and 395 in Virginia, along with a similar plan already in the works for a segment of the Capital Beltway in Virginia, makes sense. So-called HOT lanes, in use for more than a decade in California and elsewhere, use congestion pricing to prevent backups; electronic tolls on designated lanes would rise and fall according to demand, thereby ensuring that traffic keeps moving. Carpoolers, emergency vehicles, drivers badly pressed for time and, yes, the cost-is-no-object crowd would cruise. Everybody else would continue suffering what they suffer now -- stop-and-go rush hours.

Grumbling is to be expected. Although the regular lanes would remain free, no one really knows how much the HOT lanes might charge when traffic gets heavy. The private developers that would build and operate the toll lanes say that a trip from the Pentagon to Prince William Parkway, a distance of 28 miles, might cost $10 or $11 at rush hour; other estimates run twice as high, closer to $1 per mile. While the developers and state officials say there is every intention to make the toll lanes free of charge for cars with a driver and two or more passengers, there is no guarantee that will happen; if financial or traffic projections are wrong, state law could conceivably be changed so that carpoolers would have to carry an extra passenger, or even pay some amount. Moreover, the proposal is under attack from suburban "slugs" who form impromptu carpools. The "slugs" fear that allowing toll-payers into the existing carpool lanes will tempt BMW and Lexus drivers who now welcome passengers to drive in splendid solitude, whatever the cost.

Maybe. But if that is the case, then rich drivers (or their employers) will also be subsidizing a major transit and highway upgrade for the region. For the consortium behind the HOT lane proposal, Fluor Virginia Inc. and Transurban of Australia, has sweetened the deal considerably by putting $390 million on the table to operate an enormous augmentation in bus service (along with scores of new buses) in the I-95 corridor as well as on the Beltway, in addition to creating new parking lots with several thousand spaces; new interchanges; and a major improvement to I-95 to eliminate what is now a daily bottleneck of 10 miles or more at Dumfries in Prince William County. These are potentially critical improvements to the region's transportation capacity.

HOT lanes are not a panacea. Northbound drivers entering the District will still face a morning bottleneck as they approach the 14th Street Bridge, where the toll lanes merge with regular traffic, and HOT lanes could make it even worse. Inside the Beltway, where an additional toll lane will be added without expanding I-395's footprint, traffic engineers will have to plan carefully to accommodate traffic on three somewhat narrow toll lanes and smaller-than-ideal shoulders without compromising safety. But getting out of the city should be easier in the evening, and so should connections between the Beltway and Interstates 95 and 395. Like most traffic modifications, HOT lanes are a tradeoff, but this proposal looks like one whose benefits outweigh the costs.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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