Vir­ginia HOT lanes plan banks on mov­ing more peo­ple with­out more lanes

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - Dr. Grid­lock 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.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.