Northern Virginia motorists have moved a step closer to being able to buy their way out of traffic.
With a regional endorsement yesterday, Virginia is seeking $1 million in federal money to study whether to allow lone drivers to pay a toll to use free-moving carpool lanes. The lanes would be studied for highways such as Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway, parts of Interstate 95 and the Dulles Toll Road.
Hurried motorists would have a way to move faster, state officials said, and the money collected could go toward a longer-term traffic solution, such as increasing bus and rail service or improving roads.
"This is a completely new opportunity to manage our highways to give people more choices and get more capacity out of the existing system," said Tom Farley, the Northern Virginia administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The idea of high-occupancy toll, or "HOT," lanes has surfaced in the Washington region before, but it has never gotten a thorough look. This would be the first time Northern Virginia has studied it. Maryland planned to consider the idea for Route 50's new carpool lanes, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) killed it in 2001, saying HOT lanes were unfair to lower-income drivers. Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said HOT lanes did not surface as a major transportation issue during the campaign. He said HOT lanes are not "an immediate priority on the governor's transportation agenda" but that Ehrlich might be open to proposals.
The region's Transportation Planning Board endorsed Virginia's application for the federal money yesterday. The vote was purely symbolic, but the fact that public officials even discussed the possibility of charging people for traffic relief represents a stark shift from the tepid political support HOT lanes have had locally.
Transportation officials across the country are eyeing HOT lanes as a potential solution to traffic and money problems.
Critics say the pay-to-move tolls amount to a tax that creates two tiers of roads, allowing the haves to zoom past the have-nots. Critics have dubbed them "Lexus lanes."
But supporters say the region's traffic woes and dismal financial outlook have gotten so bad that the "Lexus lane" argument is beginning to lose ground. Even the influential AAA, which loudly criticized the idea just 18 months ago, now supports examining HOT lanes as a way to generate badly needed money. It is one of the few potential traffic solutions on which the AAA, highway officials and environmentalists agree.
"I haven't been a fan of HOT lanes, but the fact is we have no money to build roads or mass transit in our region," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for mid-Atlantic AAA. "If we're going to fix our transportation system, it looks like the money is going to have to come from tolls."
Northern Virginia officials took great pains yesterday to tout the lanes as a way to ease traffic, reduce air pollution and use every inch of spare pavement in an otherwise jam-packed road system.
"This won't take care of any short-term budget situation," Farley said. "We're not using this to raise money."
Transportation officials say studies of HOT lanes in southern California and Texas show that they are more "Lumina lanes" than Lexus lanes. Drivers of every income level have been willing to pay a few more dollars when in a hurry, whether they are trying to catch a plane or avoid a late pickup fee at their child's day-care center.
Motorists who have an electronic transponder on their vehicles, similar to Virginia's Smart Tag, can enter the carpool lane. A variable message sign tells them the going rate at that time. Tolls can change every five minutes or so, rising as the lanes become more crowded. Motorists are charged the toll in effect when they entered the HOT lane.
If the carpool lane starts getting too crowded, highway officials raise the toll, hoping to improve traffic flow. The toll rates in California vary from about 75 cents to about $4 during the morning and evening rush. The tolls are automatically deducted from the transponders. Charging more during peak times encourages people to drive at off-peak times, traffic experts say.
State officials say they would like to study opening I-66 inside the Capital Beltway to lone motorists willing to pay. That 11-mile segment is now restricted to carpooling during peak times, jamming side roads and creating one of the region's worst bottlenecks where single drivers are forced to divert from I-66 onto the Beltway. Carpoolers could continue to use the high-occupancy vehicles (HOV) lanes for free.
They say they also want to study HOT lanes on I-395 and on a widened Beltway. If funded, the study would take 18 months, Farley said.