Will Drivers Pay to Hurry Up and Wait?

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

How many drivers will be willing to pay $20 for a faster commute only to end up stuck in a sea of brake lights? After all, that is an experience widely available for free throughout the traffic-jammed Washington region.

This is the challenge facing the consortium of private companies proposing a series of toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 395/95. The proposal's Web site has a video that shows brightly colored computer-generated cars whizzing along in the so-called HOT lanes, past the regular folk creeping along in gray vehicles in the regular lanes.

What they don't show is that even though you might be flying past other drivers, each of the HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes run smack into two of the region's biggest bottlenecks: at the 14th Street Bridge and Pentagon, and at the American Legion Bridge. The HOT lanes could also create a new bottleneck south of the Springfield Mixing Bowl, where Beltway HOT lane traffic from Tysons Corner would merge with toll lane traffic coming from the District and the Pentagon.

How the companies and the Virginia Department of Transportation handle the ends of the lanes could determine their success.

About 43,000 vehicles use the carpool lanes across the 14th Street Bridge daily, according to government estimates. With the conversion of two commuter lanes into three HOT lanes, the prospect of customers paying high tolls to sit in traffic is a nightmare scenario for project proponents.

"It has to work for the user who will want to pay those tolls," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "If there are chokepoints and people are not going to be able to get on and off these lanes . . . they can't afford to let that happen.''

Fluor and Transurban, the companies working with VDOT, point out that the HOT lanes would end just before the 14th Street and American Legion bridges. But they recognize that they need to find a way to get commuters across the bridges and through the bottlenecks quickly in order to get return customers. And they are spending millions of dollars on engineering and traffic studies and brainpower to figure out how to do that.

"Physics is physics. Nobody's answering the question of what to do when these lanes hit the Potomac River," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and a critic of the project. Schwartz said the project will discourage transit use and carpooling, worsening traffic woes in a region that has the nation's third-worst traffic.

HOT lanes in California and other states -- sometimes derided as "Lexus lanes" because of their high tolls -- have been relatively straightforward.

"I know of no other HOT lane that ends into a bottleneck approaching that of the 14th Street Bridge," said Michael Replogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense, an organization that has been a promoter of toll-based "congestion pricing'' around the world. "Congestion pricing can help through-put during peak hours,'' he said. "But this would be the most dramatic example out there."

HOT lanes would provide an option for drivers willing to pay tolls that fluctuate based on traffic flow. Traffic would be monitored, and tolls would be raised or lowered to keep speeds at 65 mph outside the Beltway and 55 mph inside the Beltway, according to Fluor and Transurban. Buses and carpools of three or more could use the HOT lanes for free, which transit proponents said would allow for better bus access to Tysons Corner and other employment and residential centers. Tolls would be collected through E-ZPass transponders and would not involve toll booths. Strict enforcement would dramatically cut down on cheaters, planners said.

The consortium and VDOT have come to an agreement for 14 miles of HOT lanes on the Beltway and are negotiating a 36-mile conversion of existing carpool lanes from the Pentagon to Stafford County. A second phase would extend the HOT lanes to Massaponax.

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