The 495 Express Lanes got off to a slow start. Will the I-95 version draw more commuters? (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Earl Swift, who wrote “The Big Roads,” a fascinating history of America’s superhighways, takes on the future of the D.C. area’s highways in an article for The Atlantic Cities Web site.

As Swift drives Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia, he discusses the impact of the 495 Express Lanes and the potential impact of the 95 Express Lanes. In the article, titled “Putting a price on D.C.’s worst commute,” he looks at the I-95 project this way:

This thing could go any number of ways. It could spawn new and fearsome jams on I-395, choking Arlington County with the exhaust of idling legions of cars. It could prove an improvement over the current, wearying daily grind. It could convince commuters who’ve shied away from carpooling that HOV is the only practical way to get a car into D.C. The HOT lanes could be so popular, and inspire so fierce a public demand for their extension to the Potomac, that talks between state and county resume.

In “Big Roads,” Swift reviews the entire 20th century of driving and road building, and you will learn how the Indianapolis Motor Speedway got to be “The Brickyard.” But the climax focuses on the planning and construction of the Interstate highway system. Reading the book, I came to the conclusion that today’s politicians and transportation advocates who yearn for a 21st century recreation of the magic moment in infrastructure building are looking the wrong way. Swift’s account makes plain just how in-the-moment was the Interstate program’s planning and financing. He also reviews the bad outcomes of some urban highway projects.

Some readers will immediately dispute his claim that the I-95/395 trip is “D.C.’s worst commute.” I’m thinking of drivers who swing around the northern arc of the Beltway in Maryland, or idle away on Interstate 66. But I-95/395 is at least a strong candidate. Today’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes along that route are the most successful of their type in the nation, but they haven’t solved the congestion problem. Swift’s description of his morning rush hour trip will sound agonizingly familiar to many commuters.

But are High Occupancy Toll lanes the answer? Swift notes that during their first year the 495 Express Lanes significantly underperformed usage forecasts made in 2007. Will the I-95 version have a similarly slow ramp-up?

While the I-95 project is a bit different from the one on the Beltway, the basics are the same: The lanes will be tolled electronically — no toll booths, no cash — and drivers will need to have either a regular E-ZPass or the E-ZPass Flex, to qualify for the free ride while carpooling. The toll, which will vary throughout the day to keep the lanes free-flowing, has no upper limit.

If commuters are initially slow to respond to the new lanes on I-95 when they open in early 2015, that may ease the minds of some drivers on that route. They are concerned about the potential for a northbound bottleneck where the express lanes will end near Edsall Road, just north of the Beltway. This will be the point where carpoolers can continue through in the HOV lanes while vehicles with fewer than three occupants must exit into the regular lanes of northbound I-395. The project is building a flyover ramp to help with that transition, but it’s difficult to know what the traffic consequences will be till we see the thing open.

The express lanes go no farther north because Arlington County government didn’t want them to. Swift’s article speculates on the possibility of the county relenting, either because it decides it likes the lanes after all, or because the bottleneck at Edsall Road is so severe that it has traffic consequences for the county. If either of those things happen, it won’t be soon, so commuters on a trip from, say, Woodbridge to the Pentagon or D.C. should get used to the initial configuration of the new lanes.

But are the HOT lanes really the way of the future for the D.C. region and other urban areas? So far, the case is unproven. The express lanes operators take the long view. They’ve got a lease for most of this century for the Beltway lanes and the I-95 lanes. They recently refinanced the operation to take into account the slow start-up for toll revenue on the Beltway lanes. The 29-mile I-95 corridor could well prove to be more profitable, and the expansion of the toll lane network may draw some additional drivers onto the Beltway lanes.

Nationally, HOT lanes could turn out to be a transitional phase in U.S. transportation. Electronic tolling and lane management are probably here to stay in the 21st century. But public-private partnerships on financing will depend on establishing a track record of profitability. And new types of switchable transponders like the E-ZPass Flex could fall out of favor with both operators and drivers, who might prefer a more straight-forward system of tolling everyone.

See also
Toll gantry installation underway along I-95