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Retiree feels left out of highway plan

Saturday, February 12, 2011; 5:40 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I have read your columns regarding the proposal to replace the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 95 in Virginia with high-occupancy toll lanes. In every instance that I can recall, you have dealt only with rush-hour and job commuters. How about the rest of us?

I am a retired federal employee who lives approximately one mile off I-95. Although I do not have to use this corridor during rush periods, I do use it to travel to points in Arlington and Fairfax counties as well as in D.C. on a regular basis at other times.

I attempt to take advantage of the HOV lanes whenever possible. I do this both for convenience and speed, as well as for safety. Two lanes of limited-access, express traffic are usually safer than three or four lanes of constantly merging, slowing or speeding traffic.

If the HOT lane conversion goes in as described, I will be deprived of their use. As a retiree, and a Virginia resident of approximately 30 years, I have paid taxes to construct and improve these roads.

( I know you will dismiss this argument, as my personal contribution probably paid for only a guardrail and some pothole filling, but that is what citizens pay taxes for: the right to use all the facilities.)

Further, as a retiree, I cannot afford to pay tolls over a distance of 30 miles or so for the privilege of a safer, faster commute. While I can at least accept (even while I disagree with) the rationale for charging tolls during "peak usage" times allegedly to better control traffic, I cannot accept the greedy state-private partnership discriminating against citizens such as myself who attempt to use this corridor in a rational, low-impact manner.

No one so far is even thinking about the impact on drivers who use this corridor in allegedly non-peak times, let alone giving any consideration to making the HOT lanes free for our use during certain times of low usage.

- Lawrence Kandrach, Prince William County

This was one of many letters received after last week's column on Virginia's new plan to build HOT lanes on I-95 to just north of the Capital Beltway, abandoning the original plan to include much of I-395 as well.

I shared the letter with a group of federal retirees in the Springfield area who had invited me to chat about local transportation. These folks, who have plenty of experience using the corridor as commuters and retirees, were sympathetic on some aspects of the letter writer's case - as was I - but they raised some issues, too.

First, anyone trying to navigate this region safely has my sympathy. The suburbs are filled with graying baby boomers who don't have convenient access to transit, especially for the midday trips they want to make.

And it's true that the HOT lanes won't be as much a resource for them as they will be for commuters traveling at peak periods. But the HOV lanes weren't designed specifically for their travels, either. They were built to encourage carpooling among workers bound for places like the Pentagon. That would get vehicles off the road, diminishing congestion and pollution for all. The fact that solo drivers can use the HOV lanes at off-peak hours is something of a bonus to them. (They won't be deprived of using the HOT lanes but will have to pay a toll.)

It's tricky to consider what transportation resources we're entitled to use, based on our tax payments. Regarding the HOT lanes, travelers often ask, "Didn't I already pay for this highway?" The question came up again in my conversation with the federal workers group in Springfield.

That's easier to address in regard to the Capital Beltway HOT lanes, under construction along 14 miles on the western side of the big-loop highway. Those will be four new lanes. A portion of the project is financed by tax money, but the bulk of the financing comes from the private partnership.

The I-95 lanes are different. There, the HOV lanes will get a makeover along part of the highway. The two lanes will be built out to three and converted to HOT lanes. Farther south, where there are no HOV lanes, two new lanes will be built for use as HOT lanes.

That's more complicated, but it's still not really double-dipping the taxpayers. Virginia, which last raised its gas tax in the mid-1980s, has struggled to maintain the highways it has, let alone build new lanes. This new project would not be happening without the private contribution.

But some drivers - commuters and retirees alike - join Kandrach in saying: Thanks anyway, but we like things fine the way they are.

More from them in upcoming columns.

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 drgridlock@washpost.com.

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