Money Spent vs. Time Saved Debated for HOT Lanes

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

How much is your time worth?

Would you pay $20 to save 13 minutes on your morning Capital Beltway commute from Springfield to Tysons Corner?

Builders of new high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on the Beltway are betting $2 billion that there are enough drivers in the Washington region willing to pay tolls that could add up to $40 a day.

Construction started last month on 14 miles of HOT lanes that will stretch between the Springfield interchange and just north of the Dulles Toll Road. Tolls will fluctuate based on traffic -- the heavier the traffic, the higher the tolls -- to ensure that the lanes remain free-flowing.

But what the builders of the lanes are really selling is time. They are counting on frustrated commuters who have missed Little League games, scrambled to pick up children at day care or are forced to leave home two hours early for a commute that should take an hour.

The question is whether there will be enough of those people when the lanes open in five years.

"This is a crapshoot," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation and an early proponent of HOT lanes. "You just never know until the road is open."

Commuters in the Washington region are affluent enough and time-pressed enough to make it work, according to two internal traffic and revenue studies sent to potential investors in the project.

The studies, commissioned by Transurban and potential investors, say the HOT lanes will be so successful that tolls could be increased 25 percent above levels needed to keep traffic moving and there would still be enough takers, even in a tough economic climate.

"If it saves me time, then I don't care about paying the toll," said Nikhir Kumar, 35, of Reston, who commutes to Tysons Corner and can spend up to two hours in Beltway traffic. "You can't put a dollar price on spending time with my wife and 18-month-old."

Using an average rush-hour toll of $1.54 a mile, as projected in the studies, a 6.3- mile morning commute between Route 29 and Braddock Road in Fairfax County would cost $9.70 and save 90 seconds over the Beltway's "free lanes." That translates to $6.47 for each minute saved -- an hourly rate of $388, which would make some K Street lawyers jealous.

The value of time has changed over the years, said Alan Pisarski, who studies commuting behavior. In the 1950s, people were more sensitive to cost and the value of time was lower on the scale, he said. Starting in the 1980s, the values shifted.

"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.

Most of the project's revenues will be made during the morning and evening rush periods, officials said. Off-peak tolls could be as little as 14 cents a mile. And carpools of three or more and transit vehicles would ride free.

On a similar toll road in Southern California, the mean number of one-way trips per customer per week is 2 1/2 , according to Joel Zlotnik, media relations manager for the Orange County Transportation Authority. "Most of our customers are not daily users," Zlotnik said. "They'll use it when they are most pressed for time."

Several Beltway commuters interviewed recently said that they were surprised at the projected tolls and that they, too, would use the lanes selectively.

"If a client was waiting for me, yes," said Sharon Newton, a real estate agent from Gainesville. "But if I was late for a settlement, I would just call and say I'm running behind."

Consultant Ben Lek said he would not use the lanes, even though it regularly takes him 30 minutes to an hour to travel six miles during his evening Beltway commute.

"I'm personally more patient than most people," he said. "Whatever. I can deal with it."

But then he thought about missing martial arts class, for which he paid $150.

"Well, maybe, if I was going to be really late," he said.

Lek's co-worker, Steven O'Dwyer, said his time is not worth much.

"I'm not making enough to worry about that yet," he said with a laugh.

Karen Robins said there have been times when she gladly would have paid for a helicopter to lift her out of Beltway traffic. But she was hesitant about paying to use the HOT lanes, which, even with tolls at their highest rate, would surely be cheaper than a helicopter.

"It depends," the Chevy Chase teacher said. "Maybe if I'm really hungry and tired."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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