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

The District’s transportation planners envision sets of high-occupancy toll lanes stretching from Interstate 295 by the Maryland border to the 14th Street Bridge and the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

But to see what they see, you’ll need powerful binoculars.

It’s not that managed toll lanes are a bad idea for the extremely busy D.C. bridges and freeways. The concept is worth studying, as many other jurisdictions decided over the past several decades.

Just don’t go underestimating the twists and turns between today’s studies and the opening of HOT lanes.

The District Department of Transportation is looking first at establishing high occupancy vehicle lanes on the Rochambeau Bridge, the middle span of the 14th Street Bridge complex; on the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, which is Interstate 395 and Interstate 695; and on the Anacostia Freeway, Interstate 295. The HOV lanes could eventually be converted to HOT lanes, in which carpoolers get a free ride but others have to pay tolls.

“Congestion pricing” coming to the District?

The least difficult part of this program is the 14th Street Bridge segment. What the planners have in mind is designating the four lanes on the Rochambeau span as HOV3, open to vehicles with at least three people aboard. The HOV hours would match those on the Virginia side of I-395. These lanes would later be converted to HOT lanes.

Federal law imposes some serious hurdles on tolling portions of the interstate system. The District hopes that only a limited federal review would be required for the bridge segment. The freeway parts would require full reviews to assess the potential impacts of HOT lanes, as well as alternative ways of moving people.

Giving full consideration to alternative ways of managing traffic is on the mind of Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Schwartz thinks heavily traveled corridors like this have unexploited potential for transit.

A feasibility study done by a consultant for DDOT said the Southeast-Southwest Freeway part of the program could involve converting the left lanes in each direction to HOT lanes. As with the bridge portion, this means taking part of an existing interstate highway and tolling it.

That’s a threshold we have yet to cross in the D.C. region. The tolled lanes — opened or planned — on our other interstates are new lanes that add vehicle capacity.

The proposal for I-295 involves building two new reversible lanes in the middle of the interstate. The study suggests that the District government could develop this portion, like the Southeast-Southwest Freeway portion, through a public-private partnership.

Such partnerships can take many forms. Virginia worked with a private consortium to build and operate the 495 Express Lanes and is using the same strategy for the 95 Express Lanes.

But the public-private partnership on rebuilding a highway isn’t exactly “You’re hired. Let me know when you’re done.”

Virginia’s timeline on the 95 Express Lanes project stretches from a concept proposal in 2003 through a series of reviews, revisions approvals, negotiations and agreements up to the anticipated completion of construction at the end of this year.

Each project has its own challenges, but the District is a lot closer to the start of the process than the end.

Robert Poole, the director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a California-based think tank, is an advocate for using tolling to manage traffic and to finance the rebuilding of highways. I asked him to suggest some of the issues likely to arise in the District’s planning process.

“I’m not aware of any prior successes elsewhere in the country for converting existing non-toll lanes to either HOV or HOT,” he said in an e-mail.

“How much demand would there be to shift from the regular lanes to the HOT lanes on 395, 695, and 295? That would affect how much revenue would be generated to cover capital and operating costs. [The District] should do a serious traffic and revenue study before deciding to implement the plan, especially where toll revenues will be counted on to cover capital costs.”

Improving commuter bus service is a common element in HOT lanes programs. If you can make it attractive for commuters to pack themselves into one vehicle, you lessen congestion for everyone and make commute times more reliable. Poole said he would want to know how much faster and more reliable commuter buses would be if they used HOT lanes on the D.C. freeways, and how transit agencies would take advantage of such gains.

Then there’s the transportation politics: “Is there enough favorable experience with the Beltway HOT lanes to overcome the perception of HOT lanes as ‘Lexus Lanes’?” Poole asked.

The District will need a long time to sort out these issues. HOT lanes aren’t just about putting down some lane markers and raising some toll gantries.

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 .