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.
Although project planners estimate rush-hour rates of about $1 a mile, traffic planners with the council of governments estimate that tolls would have to be exponentially higher to keep traffic moving at the speeds Fluor and Transurban are promising.
The highest tolls presumably would be charged near the most heavily traveled sectors.
Fluor and Transurban representatives declined to provide traffic estimates, configuration details or alternatives they are considering to reduce backlogs at the 14th Street Bridge and elsewhere. They directed all questions about the proposal to VDOT.
Project planners said they are working especially hard on solving the morning backlog on the 14th Street Bridge. The HOT lanes would end at Eads Street in Arlington County, but the two carpool lanes back up long before the Eads Street exit, often to Washington Boulevard.
Options mentioned by planners familiar with the project include restriping one of the spans on the 14th Street Bridge to create three lanes instead of two. Another would involve closing a ramp that allows traffic from the regular lanes to use the carpool lanes. And then there is the possibility of widening the bridge.
Another option would ease HOT lane traffic by adding a third lane or a dedicated bus lane to the Eads Street ramp that serves the Pentagon and Arlington.
The federal government also is studying the 14th Street Bridge to figure out solutions.
Chris Zimmerman (D), a member of the Arlington County Board, said the answer is fewer cars and more buses. He has suggested devoting one of the three HOT lanes to buses and allowing the buses to flow in a dedicated lane into the District.
On the American Legion Bridge, which carries the Beltway across the Potomac, project planners have changed their plans and are stopping the HOT lanes before the Georgetown Pike, the original end point.
But HOT lane drivers who continue onto the Georgetown Pike or across the often-congested American Legion Bridge will have to merge into the regular lanes and fight bridge traffic with regular people.
"The HOT lanes will taper from two to one lane, and that will merge into the general purpose lanes," said Ronaldo T. "Nick" Nicholson, a VDOT project manager who is responsible for making sure Northern Virginia's mega projects are coordinated.
But that won't solve the problem. "Eventually, we're going to have to widen the American Legion Bridge," Nicholson said.
Maryland is in the early stages of studying its own toll lane proposal that would eventually connect to the Virginia HOT lanes at the American Legion Bridge.
Kirby said Fluor and Transurban already have improved the original plans for HOT lane access to Tysons Corner, creating three entrances and exits instead of dumping all the traffic onto crowded Route 123. And the new HOT lane proposal would relieve a nightly traffic jam in Dumfries, where carpool lanes dump into the regular lanes.
"To their credit, after a lot of time and effort, they have three entry points into Tysons," Kirby said.
Some problems will not be solved by engineering but by market forces, such as a proposed HOT lane merge south of the Springfield interchange, where traffic from Tysons Corner, the District and the Pentagon will meet. That will probably mean high tolls.
"Traffic coming from the inner loop during the peak hour can't be such that it degrades the southbound traffic," Nicholson said. "It's going to metered with tolls. They are variable, and there are no caps on them. The market is going to be used to manage congestion. That is the premise of HOT lanes."