By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008
Commuters who carpool along the Interstate 95/395 corridor to the Pentagon or the District continue to raise concerns about the proposed HOT lanes that will replace the HOV lanes from Dumfries to the 14th Street bridge.
The carpoolers, also known as "slugs," accept free rides from strangers, allowing drivers to use HOV lanes that require a minimum of three passengers per vehicle during rush hours. The slugging system in Northern Virginia is considered to be among the most extensive and successful in the country.
Slugs fear that allowing toll-payers into the existing carpool lanes will tempt affluent drivers who now welcome passengers to drive solo instead. Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a frequent slugger, last week called for an independent study of how the HOT lanes would affect the impromptu carpooling system. He also complained that the private companies planning the toll lanes have not fully addressed the questions and concerns of slugs and HOV drivers.
Stewart said he is skeptical of the plans because they are taking a system that works and turning it over to private companies. He also raised safety concerns about operating three traffic lanes in the two-lane footprint.
Slugging is thought to date to the early 1970s, when commuters hoping to form carpools for the HOV lanes would gather at bus stops. Slug is the term for a fake coin in a bus farebox, and it is believed bus drivers characterized the waiting carpoolers that way because the commuters, although waiting at bus stops, were not bus riders.
State officials said they have no desire to discourage the practice.
"Why on earth would we be building 6,700 commuter [parking] spots in the corridor if we were not serious about HOV and transit?'' Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer asked. "Slugging and transit are the most efficient and environmentally friendly transportation alternatives out there."
The goal of the HOT lanes is to use variable pricing to keep the lanes free-flowing. There is no upper limit on toll rates. Drivers who don't want to pay can use the free, non-HOT lanes. The companies that plan to convert the two-lane HOV facility into a three-lane toll highway say they will still allow carpools of three or more to ride free. But hybrid cars with fewer than three passengers, which are now largely allowed in HOV lanes, will have to pay the tolls, which could top $1 a mile. The companies also say they will create additional entry and exit points and crack down on cheaters, who they say make up 20 percent of the current HOV traffic flow.
The project also includes $195 million for the state to increase transit along the I-95/395 corridor, said Young Ho Chang, project manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Stewart said he was afraid that the toll lanes would harm sluggers by clogging up the lanes.
"We need some guarantees here, not promises," Stewart said.
Last month, Prince William supervisors passed a resolution demanding all correspondence between VDOT and the companies sponsoring the project, Transurban and Fluor Corp. The resolution also demanded that representatives appear before the board to answer questions by February.
On Thursday, representatives of Transurban and VDOT met with Stewart for a previously scheduled meeting to update him and other Prince William officials. Stewart invited the media and said he hoped the companies and VDOT would be more forthcoming with their plans.
Experts are divided over the impact the project might have on sluggers. Some think that drivers with the financial means would pay the tolls to avoid the hassles of picking up passengers. Others say that slugging will increase as drivers try to avoid paying the fluctuating tolls.
If traffic bogs down, "we'll just raise the price until we chase everyone else off," said Timothy Young, development manager for Transurban, who attended the meeting with Stewart.
During the meeting, company officials declined to share projections about how many vehicles might use the HOT lanes, saying the information was proprietary. They also said many other financial and operational details were not available because the companies have not completed negotiations with VDOT, which owns the HOV lanes.
Company officials said they have held focus group discussions with sluggers but did not commit to an independent study, as requested by Stewart.
Young said the company and VDOT have held dozens of informational meetings with stakeholders in Prince William and other jurisdictions the project would affect. The project, which would extend the current HOV lanes south to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County, is undergoing review for federal environmental approval. He said he hoped that VDOT would complete the environmental process by the end of the month and that the project would receive federal approval by the end of the year. Then the companies and VDOT would negotiate a financial agreement by next fall.
A second phase, which would extend HOT lanes to Massaponax in Spotsylvania County, has just begun the federal environmental process, which could take 18 months to complete.