Virginia's Project Hero program, in which commuters call a special telephone number to report car pool lane violators, will be discontinued Nov. 1, state officials said yesterday.
In the program's 22 months, state officials repeatedly said the program, in which warning letters but no tickets were issued, was successful in reducing the number of drivers on the Shirley Highway and Interstate 66 who flouted the rush-hour restriction of three or more persons in a vehicle.
But cheating still is rampant along the two highways, according to state figures. Nearly half of the vehicles traveling in the restricted lanes of the Shirley Highway south of Springfield and on I-66 inside the Capital Beltway are violating the high-occupancy vehicle requirement in the morning rush hour.
"You can sit there no longer than a minute before you see your first violator," said Gerald Schroeder, of McLean, whose car pool on I-66 used to keep a computer database of violators to turn in. "You make the calls and for all you know, nothing is happening."
Perhaps sensing their calls weren't doing much good, hundreds of people a day stopped calling the toll-free number set up by the state. When Gov. L. Douglas Wilder cracked down on state spending, officials decided the $85,000-a-year Hero program was expendable.
Patterned after a program in Seattle, Project Hero relied on drivers to snitch on fellow commuters; at its peak, officials counted an average of 700 calls a day. State employees took down the information, and letters were sent telling the violators they had been caught and asking them not to break the rules again. Sterner letters went out for second- and third-time violators.
Since January 1989, when the program began, about 45,000 people had received first letters; second-time letters went to 11,161 people; and 1,112 letters went to third-time cheaters.
Chronic offenders -- some who were caught as many as 20 times -- were put on a State Police "hot sheet." An undetermined number of these people were issued tickets when observed violating the law, but police said the number was not substantial.
Lt. Donald Garrett, of the State Police, said the death of the program would not have an appreciable effect on enforcement. "It helped us, but we can also live without it," Garrett said.
Beginning in July last year, police began a new tactic against HOV violators: issuing tickets by mail. That program has saved troopers the trouble of finding a place to pull over violators and has enabled them to write 10 times as many tickets.
But the program has had bugs. Many of the tickets are dismissed because the state can't prove that the vehicle's owner was also the driver when the violation occurred.
Donald E. Williams, Virginia's motor vehicles commissioner, did not return telephone calls yesterday. In a letter to Northern Virginia lawmakers, however, he cited the ticket-by-mail program as a reason for discontinuing Project Hero.
He also said Project Hero had served its purpose of educating drivers about HOV lanes.
"Given these two facts -- most people now know about the program and law enforcement now has other means to accomplish the same purpose -- and the fact that it was costing us about $85,000 annually to run a 'non-essential' program, we will discontinue it at the end of this month," Williams wrote the lawmakers.
The real reason for Project Hero was the 19-mile extension of the permanent, reversible HOV lanes from Springfield to Quantico. Until that is completed in five years, drivers are using the shoulder as a third lane in the rush hour, which makes it hard for police to pull over cheaters. Something was needed to cut down on infractions.
When the permanent lanes are installed, the problem will probably ease. In the permanent lanes from Springfield to the District line, where there are shoulders, only 17 percent of the traffic is breaking the law; in the temporary HOV lanes south of Springfield, the figure jumps to 46 percent in violation.
"I don't consider it a great loss," Lew Pratsch, president of the Virginia Van Pool Association Inc., said of Project Hero's demise. "There's been so much cheating, even with the program."