Virginia HOT lanes plan banks on moving more people without more lanes
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
What I don’t understand and no one has touched on is the fact that the federal government prohibits the tolling of interstate highways unless they were built before the inception of the ROBERT THOMSON interstate highway system.
I know you can toll if you are adding capacity not on the fed’s dime (see Interstate 495 and Interstate 95 HOT lanes), but the Interstate 66 nonsense inside the Beltway isn’t adding anything. How on earth does VDOT think that they can do this?
— Cathy Lewis, Arlington
Lewis is right that there are rules about tolling inter states, and the feds need to play a role in the conversion of interstate high occupancy vehicle lanes to high occupancy toll lanes, but they’ ve been doing that for years.
Before the interstate highway system was created in the 1950s, there was a great debate about how to finance them. Tolling was problematic, mainly because of concerns that it wouldn’t raise enough money outside of highly populated areas. We eventually wound up with the Highway Trust Fund, a transportation piggy bank fed with gas taxes.
The states received huge sums of federal money for the inter states, so it seemed unfair to allow them to layer on tolling. But the federal gas tax was last raised in 1993 and can’ t supply the money the states need for maintenance, let alone new construction.
The Federal Highway Administration has a limited program under which a few states can toll inter states. Virginia got a slot in the program, and former governor Robert F. McDonnell’ s administration had planned to use it for tolling I -95 in the southern part of the commonwealth.
The idea proved unpopular, and when the General Assembly approved the governor’s plan for a new transportation taxing program, it was dropped.
But many transportation experts say that easing the interstate tolling restrictions nationwide would be a good way to help the states with their highway financing problems.
While the debate continues on that front, we have the somewhat separate topic of converting HOV lanes into HOT lanes.
People are legitimately confused about these different threads in conversation about transportation. Many of us came of age when financing the interstate highway system was the national transportation plan. We need to move on.
The debate over highway financing reflects the fact that we built a system bigger than what we wanted to pay for. The debate over whether to convert HOV lanes to HOT lanes reflects that we’re trying to figure out how to squeeze more performance out of that system.
HOV lanes are a significant tool in improving the performance of highways because they can move more people than regular lanes. But they can take us only so far. They can become congested for a variety of reasons.
When that happens, and travel speeds slow, the states that operate the HOV lanes risk running a foul of federal rules on average speeds. Conversion to HOT lane scan improve travel speeds and — if done right—movemorepeople.
In its plan to create HOT lane son I -66 inside the Belt way by summer 2017, Virginia has not gone rogue.
Federal policy is stated this way: “The U.S. Department of Transportation strongly endorses the use of HOT lanes as an effective strategy to address congestion. The toll should be varied in accordance with travel conditions and should be set at a high enough level that the performance of the HO V lane is not degraded.”
That’s what VDOT did on I-95 and what it plans to do with I-66 HOV lanes, inside the Beltway as well as outside.
The unique aspect of the inside-the-Beltway plan is that the conversion from HOV to HOT would occur without any lanes being added.
Some Republican legislators have seized on this to make a case against the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
“Charging Virginians for the privilege of sitting in traffic without using that money to add new capacity leaves the real problem— congestion—completely unsolved ,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said in a statement in which he joined other GOP legislators in blasting the HOT lane sidea.
The statement reflects a way of thinking about highway travel that went out with the Gran Torino: If you’re not adding lanes, you’re not adding capacity.
That’s a transportation plan for the mid-20th century. In fact, if VDOT does what it pledges to do by using HOT lanes revenue to build up carpooling and a commuter bus system, it will add people-moving capacity on I-66 and make the experience more tolerable for everyone.