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Money Spent vs. Time Saved Debated for HOT Lanes
"We've become more affluent, and the value of time has become dominant," Pisarski said. After all, one can always make more money, but there are only 24 hours in the day.
But more appealing than saving time or speeding past cars in stop-and-go traffic is the lanes' predictability, said Ken Orski, a transportation expert who has studied toll roads.
"It's not so much as saving five minutes, but in not having the frustration and anxiety because you don't know what the conditions will be," Orski said.
In that sense, HOT lanes are similar to the Clear card, which allows air travelers who agree to submit to thorough background checks and retinal scans to cruise through airport security lines for an annual fee of $128. Another example is Washington lobbyists who pay people to sit in line to secure seats at congressional hearings.
"Predictability is what we sell," said Allison Beer, chief marketing officer for the Clear card program. The typical Clear member is a frequent flier who has missed flights because of long security lines or been burned by showing up an hour early to find lines that are only a few travelers long, she said.
Project officials say HOT lanes traffic will move at a minimum of 55 mph. That is why there is no cap on toll rates -- to discourage drivers who might clog up the lanes and slow speeds.
That predictability could eliminate what transportation planners call "buffer time," the extra time travelers build into their commute to cover traffic mishaps. Eliminating buffer time could mean an extra hour with family, a second cup of coffee with the morning paper, an extra hour of sleep. There also is the security of knowing that traffic will not cause one to miss that job interview or breakfast with the boss.
But some observers question whether HOT lanes officials have oversold the time savings and cost.
According to the builders' promotional material, tolls could reach about $1 a mile in some high-demand sections of the Beltway during peak times. But the traffic and revenue studies estimate the average rush-hour toll at $1.54 a mile.
Ken Daley, vice president of Transurban, the Australian company that will operate the toll lanes, said the $1 figure is in 2004 dollars, while the $1.54 is an estimate of what the average toll would be in 2015, after the lanes have been up and running for two years.
Daley says the toll lanes will maintain an average speed of 55 mph, but the internal reports estimate average rush-hour speeds of 43 mph to 44 mph.
"We are presenting customers with a value proposition," said Daley, Transurban's point person for the Beltway HOT lanes and a similar proposal for the Interstate 95/395 corridor. Daley said he does not expect drivers to use the lanes every day, but only when the value of time and certainty outweighs the price of using the lanes.