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A 2nd Look At Snubbed HOT Lanes
By Katherine Shaver

The Washington Post, December 29, 2003

Transportation experts Robert W. Poole and C. Kenneth Orski have spent the past decade touting a plan to ease traffic in crowded urban areas such as Washington: Charge lone motorists a toll for the chance to use leftover space in free-flowing carpool lanes.

While the idea took hold in some traffic-clogged areas of California and Texas, it stalled in the Washington region. The politically powerful AAA dubbed such toll lanes "Lexus lanes," favoring more affluent motorists. Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D) canceled the region's only study of such lanes in 2001 after calling them economically unfair. Virginia transportation officials showed little interest.

But in the past six months, the idea of high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes has gained traction faster than almost any other traffic congestion-fighting measure. The details of how to create them -- and how to spend the toll money -- still stir debate. However, with money tight and traffic growing worse, HOT lanes are now widely viewed as one of the most feasible, affordable ways to better manage, if not ease, traffic congestion in the short term while generating money for long-term relief.

"We are out of money in our transportation trust funds throughout our region," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic AAA and one of the most vocal critics of HOT lanes just a year ago. "There's no money to make the wholesale changes many would like to see. HOT lanes offer that opportunity."

Maryland has renewed its studies of HOT lanes on six highways, including its portion of the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 in Montgomery County and Route 50 in Prince George's County. The Virginia Department of Transportation is considering the idea as a way to pay for widening the Beltway through Northern Virginia in addition to adding and extending carpool lanes on I-95 between Springfield and Fredericksburg. At a regional conference on HOT lanes in June, politicians and traffic planners were practically giddy about what many called their only financial hope of making major road or transit improvements.

Building new HOT lanes would take at least five years -- as long as it would take to build any new road. However, charging tolls to use excess capacity in existing carpool lanes, such as on I-270, Route 50 and I-66, could offer relief in as little as a year, Orski said.

"If there's a will to do so," said Orski, a transportation consultant who lives in Potomac, "it could be done in the next six months."

What's HOT
Here's how HOT lanes work: The carpool lanes remain free to carpools, van pools and buses, while other motorists pay a toll. The tolls are collected via electronic transponders, akin to Maryland's E-Z Pass and Virginia's Smart Tag, to prevent tollbooths from slowing or stopping traffic. To make sure the lanes don't fill up with cheaters, effective HOT lanes have room built in for police to ensure that vehicles have transponders.

What makes HOT lanes most effective: The toll's price changes throughout the day to keep traffic moving, even during rush hours. When the lanes start to bog down, the price goes up to encourage motorists to leave the lanes or discourage them from entering. As road space frees up, the price drops. The fluctuating prices not only keep traffic moving, advocates say, but also stretch the highway's capacity by encouraging drivers to use it outside peak times.

HOT-lane advocates also tout the long-term potential for such lanes to improve transit. If a network of HOT lanes could be developed long term to connect free-flowing toll lanes on several major highways, it could form a seamless web for express bus service.

HOT lanes won't stem the ever-rising tide of traffic fueled by the Washington region's population and job growth. But charging for the region's road space could at least ensure that the precious capacity that is available is used most efficiently. It also would give people the option of paying a few dollars for something they can't otherwise get: a reliably smooth trip when they have to be on time.

"I think there's a convergence of thinking that congestion will always be a part of Northern Virginia, so at least it has to be better managed," said Pierce R. Homer, deputy transportation secretary in Virginia and chairman of a panel considering HOT lanes as a way to pay for widening the Beltway. "Part of managing congestion is providing choices, and that's something that HOT lanes do."

An Old Idea
The idea of "road pricing," or charging motorists for using limited road space, has been around since the 1960s, said Poole, founder of the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles think tank that applies market-based approaches to reforming government. However, Poole said, it was considered political suicide to begin charging motorists for something they were used to getting for free.

In 1988, Poole wrote an academic paper suggesting that motorists be charged for the chance to use newly built "premium-priced" lanes based on the idea that people were accustomed to paying for premium service at peak times. New road capacity could be priced the same way that phone companies charged customers more for making long-distance calls during peak daytime hours than for calls made on nights and weekends. Instead of having to build a massive infrastructure just to meet peak demand, phone companies used pricing to even out the demand and shift it to better match the supply.

The same pricing approach could shift traffic congestion out of the peak morning and evening rush, Poole reasoned. It also could further stretch the capacity of underused carpool lanes by letting lone motorists pay to use them.

The idea of HOT lanes languished in academic circles until the mid-1990s, Poole said, largely because he, Orski and other enthusiasts had no proof that they worked and no evidence that they wouldn't merely favor the rich. But in the past couple of years, two things happened to give HOT lanes new life in many cities.

First, state and local governments eyeing expensive long-term traffic relief projects, such as expanded transit systems and new highways, no longer had the money to build them, and voters defeated proposals to fund them through higher taxes. Second, research from early HOT-lane projects in Southern California and the Houston area began to weaken the politically catchy Lexus-lane argument.

Slow Road to Approval
Studies of those projects showed that the toll lanes were used by motorists of all income levels, usually when people needed to get somewhere in a hurry. HOT lanes in California and Texas also gained support among motorists who didn't use them regularly because they were seen as diverting more vehicles from the regular lanes. HOT lanes didn't prevent traffic jams from growing, officials on other HOT-lane projects said, but the ability to move more vehicles into the carpool lanes likely slowed the rate at which congestion worsened.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said he favors toll lanes as one of the few ways to pay for major congestion-relief projects. However, Flanagan said, Route 50's carpool lane is the only one in Maryland that he foresees having enough room to accommodate toll-paying drivers without needing to widen the road.

"There are literally many billions of dollars in projects around the state that need to be done to address bottlenecks," Flanagan said. Charging tolls, he said, might be one of the few ways to pay for them.

Unlike most transportation proposals, HOT lanes enjoy a rare amount of support across the political spectrum, from road advocates and business groups to some environmental and smart-growth groups.

However, debates still arise over how the toll money should be spent. Some environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, support adding tolls to existing carpool lanes but only if the toll money is used to improve transit in the area, not to widen roads. Another group, Environmental Defense, doesn't mind using tolls to widen a highway, as long as transit riders in the same corridors also get better service and if HOT lanes minimize the amount of new highway capacity needed.

Some smart-growth groups say they support studying HOT lanes' potential, but they're concerned that allowing lone motorists to use faster-moving carpool lanes will only encourage people to move farther out and create more car-dependent sprawl. A HOT-lane network speeding people to the outer suburbs would dump more motorists onto already clogged local roads, said Stewart Schwartz, head of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

"Many of us are deeply suspicious that a proposal for extensive HOT lanes and a big network of them is a way to get significant new highway capacity into the far outer reaches of this region," Schwartz said.

Anderson, of Mid-Atlantic AAA, said he began to have a change of heart about HOT lanes after the money for new road projects began to dry up. Moreover, he said, his group's surveys began to show growing support for HOT lanes. A phone poll of about 300 Washington area motorists culled from driver registration records in the fall showed that 49 percent -- a 10 percent jump from three years ago -- favored allowing solo drivers to pay to use carpool lanes if it would ease traffic.

Anderson said those numbers reflect motorists' growing frustration.

"They're getting desperate," Anderson said. "They're grasping for straws, and this is one of the few straws being offered."

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