Not Such a HOT Idea

‘Lexus Lanes’ Could Ruin Vir­ginia’s Highly Suc­cess­ful HOV Sys­tem

The Washington Post Sunday - - Close To Home - — Bob Hugman

As a long­time com­muter in the in­ter­states 95 and 395 high-oc­cu­pan­cyve­hi­cle lanes, I am against the Vir­ginia Trans­porta­tion De­part­ment’s pro­posal to con­vert them to high-oc­cu­pancy toll lanes. The Post has re­ported that tolls in the HOT lanes may be as high as $40 per round trip. That would be $800 per month, if paid ev­ery work­day, from Wood­bridge to the Pen­tagon. That truly would put the project in the cat­e­gory of “Lexus Lanes.” Thank good­ness HOV-3 ve­hi­cles would be per­mit­ted, at least ini­tially, to use them for free.

How­ever, my rea­son for op­pos­ing HOT lanes goes be­yond the Lexus is­sue.

My ob­jec­tion is that con­vert­ing I-395 to a HOT road would put per­haps the most suc­cess­ful HOV sys­tem in the coun­try at risk.

This HOV sys­tem has been op­er­at­ing for decades. It is the mass-tran­sit mode for what I es­ti­mate to be 30,000 peo­ple each week­day. No other HOT-lane con­ver­sion in the coun­try has been im­posed on a car­pool cor­ri­dor that was as suc­cess­ful as this one is. And HOT-lane agree­ments typ­i­cally award the private de­vel­oper a con­tract for 50 to 60 years. So, as I un­der­stand it, Vir­gini­ans would be hand­ing over tax­payer-paid in­fra­struc­ture to a private con­cern for decades to come and would be re­lin­quish­ing much con­trol over it.

Fur­ther­more, be­cause it would be a for­profit ven­ture, the de­vel­oper nat­u­rally will push for tolls and poli­cies that max­i­mize profit. But what hap­pens if the pro­jected prof­its

K don’t ma­te­ri­al­ize or there are fi­nan­cial losses?

If that oc­curs, I be­lieve that ei­ther new lanes the de­vel­oper has promised to add on I-95 south to Fred­er­icks­burg will not be built or the state will al­low tolls to be charged on HOV-3 ve­hi­cles. The lat­ter would re­duce the in­cen­tive to car­pool, be­cause reg­u­lar lanes would re­main free.

I am also skep­ti­cal of “dy­namic tolling,” in which toll rates would be ad­justed as of­ten as ev­ery few min­utes to ease traf­fic flow. The the­ory is that when there are too many ve­hi­cles in HOT lanes, the tolls will be in­creased, thus en­cour­ag­ing cars to move to non-toll lanes. Sorry, but by the time the lanes are clogged, it will be too late to make such an adjustment. Does any­one re­ally be­lieve that toll pay­ers will wait in line to get out of the HOT lanes to move into slower-mov­ing reg­u­lar lanes?

Un­for­tu­nately, the suc­cess of this en­tire project de­pends on dy­namic tolling. I sub­mit that the whole ex­per­i­ment will fail be­cause of the cor­ri­dor’s traf­fic den­sity, exit con­straints and the 14th Street Bridge bot­tle­neck. No sys­tem of dy­namic tolling any­where that I know of has been tried in a cor­ri­dor as com­plex and highly trav­eled as this one, so I-95 com­muters es­sen­tially will be guinea pigs.

I also have con­cerns about toll en­force­ment and safety. How will toll pay­ment and car­pool oc­cu­pancy in the HOT lanes be ver­i­fied with­out caus­ing chaos and in­con­ve­nience? Can the I-395 seg­ment ac­com­mo­date all of the project’s lanes and in­clude shoul­ders wide enough to en­sure driver safety?

Fi­nally, shouldn’t Congress have some­thing to say about a private de­vel­oper us­ing a fed­er­ally funded in­ter­state high­way to make a profit and dis­rupt a suc­cess­ful HOV sys­tem?

Wood­bridge The writer has lived in Prince William County and has car­pooled to Ross­lyn in the HOV lanes since 1988. His e-mail ad­dress is rhug­man@hot­mail.com.

BY LES­LIE E. KOS­SOFF — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Above: A com­muter in a “slug line” in a park­ing lot off In­ter­state 395 in Spring­field checks with driv­ers in 2004 to find some­one go­ing to his des­ti­na­tion down­town. Driv­ers pull up to col­lect at least two pas­sen­gers so they can use the re­stricted HOV-3 lanes en route to the Dis­trict. Left: Rush-hour traf­fic on I-395 last sum­mer.

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