By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 6:03 PM
Did everybody win last week when Virginia formally abandoned its crippled plan for high-occupancy toll lanes north of the Capital Beltway? Arlington County, which had sued to block the project on Interstate 395, doesn't have to worry about those lanes now. And by shrugging off the original plan, the state freed itself to pursue its other goal of creating HOT lanes on I-95 and linking them to the Beltway HOT lanes.
That could be a win for thousands of commuters who stand to gain a quicker trip to work by car or by expanded bus services. It has the potential to greatly enhance Virginia's capacity to manage traffic along a busy and important corridor of more than 40 miles. The HOT lanes network could have as much influence on mobility in Northern Virginia as the 23-mile Dulles Metrorail line.
The devil will be in the details, and the details include ramps, shoulders, tolling techniques, financial incentives, land-use plans and driving habits. People who share the goals of safe and efficient travel had some very different takes on the turn of events last week.
Before bringing them in, let's quickly review how the HOT lanes should work: Drivers faced with delays in the regular travel lanes can choose to enter these special lanes for the promise of a quicker trip. If they are driving alone, they will pay for the privilege, at a rate that has no ceiling. If they meet the carpool requirements, or they're aboard a vanpool or bus, the trip will be free. Providing them with a faster trip is a matter of supply and demand: As the lane becomes more crowded, the toll goes up for those who aren't carpooling.
Leaders in the Virginia debate disagree about whether the plan encourages togetherness among travelers or just makes it easier for some people to drive alone. That's especially important in discussing the I-95/395 corridor.
Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the Arlington County Board, said commuters should be concerned about any plan that might encourage solo driving. The special circumstance of I-95/395 is that the corridor is a national model for carpooling.
"It's probably the most efficient highway in the region, and perhaps in America, in the number of people that are moved by it," he said. The state's first goal in making changes should be to do no harm.
Under the state's original plan for converting the high-occupancy vehicle, or carpool, lanes into HOT lanes, Zimmerman said, "we were looking at a proposal that would squeeze a lane in and put single-occupancy vehicles on it." That, he said, had the potential to do a lot of harm, and Arlington wanted a lot more study on matters that included the width of the lanes, where they would end and where ramps would be.
That may be a moot point for I-395, since the state cut off the right arm of the original HOT lanes system, but those issues will continue to interest commuters on the I-95 part, south of the Beltway.
Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance and an advocate for regionwide improvements that include the HOT lanes, has a very different take on last week's developments.
He says the new plan is no victory for Arlington. "Here's why: I-95 and I-395 traffic volumes will continue to grow, as in the next 30 years Northern Virginia will add another 1 million or so people, the metro area 1.6 million, Commonwealth of Virginia 2 million and the U.S. of A. 100 million," he said.
"South of the Beltway, the HOT lanes provide some additional auto, transit and freight capacity, some by moving autos from conventional to HOT [lanes]. However, when that moving mass reaches and attempts to move inside the Beltway, SOVs [single-occupancy vehicles] in the HOT lanes suddenly must merge into the conventional lanes. That's when I-395 really comes to a halt.
"So while for a fee HOT lanes will allow SOVs to leapfrog over some northbound conventional traffic, at the end of the line, they must merge back in. And that re-merge will back up the northbound traffic that is still south of the Beltway even farther and extend the rush hour."
Others question whether any part of the new program will benefit commuters.
"It is very possible that these newly configured HOT lanes will make the traffic problems at the Mark Center [off I-395 in Alexandria] . . . and the new Tysons Corner worse, not better, by leading to more single-occupant vehicles and fewer carpools and buses, but we can't know without the analysis," Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said in a statement calling for a rigorous review of the new plan.
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Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail email@example.com.