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Money Spent vs. Time Saved Debated for HOT Lanes

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008; Page B01

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?

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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.

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