Traffic backs up on the inbound 14th Street bridge in 2010. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

District officials are considering creating carpool and toll lanes on part of the 14th Street bridge and other stretches of city highway as early as next year, offering motorists with means a way of speeding their commute and pushing the nation’s capital into the debate over the costs and benefits of “congestion pricing.”

The High Occupancy Toll, or HOT, lanes would be free for cars carrying at least three people, according to a District planning study. Single drivers, or vehicles with just a couple of people, would use an E-ZPass to pay a toll that would shift, depending on the amount of traffic. There are similar lanes in place along the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

Under the proposals, the middle span over the Potomac River from Virginia — known as the Rochambeau Bridge — would be included in the new carpool and toll arrangement, while the other two bridges would remain free for all traffic. A key goal is to reduce the number of vehicles carrying single drivers as a way of easing congestion.

Disparaged by some as “Lexus Lanes” and praised by others as at least a partial market-based solution for persistent traffic snarls, HOT lanes would be a departure for the District, which has no toll lanes. District officials say the effort is still in the planning stage and that much remains to be decided after hearing from the public, federal officials and others.

But the debate is far from theoretical. Next month, the D.C. Council is to vote on a budget bill that would give city transportation officials the power to set up such lanes.

“Congestion pricing” coming to the District?

And council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who heads the council’s transportation committee, said she supports the idea, with some caveats, as a means of getting drivers to foot more of the bill for city streets, given the District’s limited resources.

“Maintaining roads and bridges is an extraordinarily expensive proposition,” Cheh said, adding that the specter of future reductions in federal funds has helped spur the idea. “It makes sense to have, in effect, these user fees if we are going to be able to maintain the infrastructure we need.”

Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the idea might be a good one — if it works as advertised to speed the flow of traffic. His organization supported the Beltway HOT lanes. But Anderson said he needs convincing in the case of the District.

“The question is, is it to actually to assist motorists and improve their mobility? Or is it one more way to bilk money out of motorists, which D.C. is extremely adept at doing, with no measurable gain?” Anderson said.

Anderson cited “automated enforcement systems,” such as red-light cameras, which bring in vast sums of revenue for the District while sometimes netting drivers unjustly. AAA is working with one driver who got a ticket despite a photo showing that the car had stopped just over a severely faded painted line in the road, Anderson said. AAA estimates that the city collects more than $100 million annually in fines from automated enforcement tickets and an additional $88 million in parking fines, he said.

Officials from the District’s Department of Transportation said they are focused on traffic mitigation, not cash.

“It’s hard to say, exactly, at this point if it will be making money or not. Our main focus is much more congestion management rather than just looking at the financial numbers,” said Faisal Hameed, part of DDOT’s team of project planners. “It may not make a lot of money, but at least it allows the infrastructure to be managed and maintained.”

Hameed emphasized that there would be a toll-free choice for any driver who doesn’t want to pay. That differentiates the District proposals from more old-school toll roads and bridges, he said.

“In a toll facility, you would have the entire thing tolled. Everybody would have to pay a toll. In this case, you’d still have an option,” Hameed said.

Further proposals would carve out one lane in each direction on interstates 395 and 695 in the District for HOT lanes, and two new lanes could be added for the effort along part of Interstate 295, the Anacostia Freeway.

The 14th Street part of the project is the simpler and less expensive leg of the proposal, and the one that could happen the fastest. It would cost $7 million or $8 million, according to DDOT project manager Clarence Dickerson, covering everything from new signs and lane lines to toll-taking equipment in what is envisioned as an all-electronic system. That section would be carpool lanes first, then transition to allow paying drivers to join in, officials said.

District officials said that later projects along I-395, I-695 and I-295 would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require major construction and an in-depth environmental review process with the federal government. Last month, planners added the city’s HOT lane proposals to the region’s long-range transportation plan.

Cheh said that a hearing on the city’s transportation budget later this month will dig into the detailed justifications for the project.

“What is it we need, why do we think this is the best way to go and what do we expect to recover from it? What’s our thought process about this?” Cheh said, adding: “It’s not settled.”

Get updates on your area delivered via e-mail