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High Occupancy Traffic (HOT) Lanes

HOT News Articles and Links to Resources:

Va. officials reach tentative deal for I-95 HOT lanes 6 Dec 11
New Tactics For Dealing With Traffic 21 Feb 05
HOT Proposals Threaten Slugging, HOV Lanes 20 Feb 05
County Closer to HOT Lanes 13 Oct 04

VDOT I-95 Hot Lanes Unsolicited PPTA Proposals

I-95 Hot Lanes Proposal Submitted by Clark Construction Group, Inc., Shirley Contracting Company, LLC, and Koch Performance Roads, Inc.  
I-95/395 BRT/HOT Lanes System Proposal Submitted by Fluor of Virginia  
Another plan for HOT lanes 16 Mar 2004
Are HOT Lanes a Hot Deal? The Potential Consequences of Converting HOT to HOV Lanes in Northern Virginia RFF-IB-03-03  
Not so fast on those Beltway HOT lanes Northern Virginia Journal  
HOT Lanes  
washingtonpost.com: HOT Lanes Have a Mixed Record Elsewhere  
I-394 HOV and HOT Lanes Case Study  
HOT Lanes: A Better Way to Attack Urban Highway Congestion  
HOT Lanes: How to Gain Public Support For Tolling By Permitting Solo Drivers to Buy Into HOV Lanes  
RPPI Policy Study 257  
A 2nd Look At Snubbed HOT Lanes 29 Dec 2003
Highway-Addicted Politicians Opt for “Quick Fix” on Beltway  
Va. Willing to Study Toll Lanes' Potential 16 Jan 2003
HOT lanes plan on drawing boards 29 Sep 2003


New Tactics For Dealing With Traffic
Va., Md. Planners Look Beyond HOV

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page B01
[Go to Washington Post article]

Al Waitkus is going 5 mph. It's been like this for an hour, and he figures he's got at least another hour before he gets home.

This, he doesn't like.

To his left, he sees cars in the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes happily speeding along, many of them cheaters.

This, he really doesn't like.

"I'm looking at HOV right now, and two out of every five [vehicles] have only one person," he said on a cell phone near Woodbridge. "I get envious watching them move that fast. They don't need an HOV. [Getting rid of it] would relieve a lot of this congestion."

Whether the Washington region needs HOV lanes is as pertinent a question among transportation planners as among such frustrated commuters as Waitkus. Chronic cheating and growing congestion have led officials to explore new concepts that they said are more likely to ease tie-ups.

In Virginia, where HOV lanes were created in 1969 to provide a faster ride for those willing to travel with others, proposals exist to convert HOV lanes on Interstates 95 and 395 into high-occupancy toll lanes. Solo drivers could pay a fee to use them. State officials also are considering adding HOT lanes to the Capital Beltway. The only HOV lanes planned are part of a 3.8-mile widening of I-66 near Manassas.

Planners in Maryland are no longer thinking HOV at all and instead are pursuing express toll lanes on several major highways. The fees that would fund the construction of the lanes would be paid by all drivers and would rise during times when traffic gets heavier.

"We believe there's actually more congestion management potential from express toll lanes than HOV lanes," said Neil J. Pedersen, chief of the Maryland State Highway Administration. "Our thinking has evolved to that, and it's a combination of looking at what can most effectively manage congestion together with a very practical funding issue."

Despite the existence of HOV lanes on several highways and a sustained effort to encourage carpooling, only 7 percent of the region's residents drive to work with others, slightly fewer than in the nation as a whole, according to local and national polls by The Washington Post released this month.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said creating carpool lanes was a very effective way to ease congestion, trailing such fixes as building new roads, public transportation and removing disabled vehicles. Nearly 60 percent favored HOT lanes, and the region split on adjustable toll roads, suggesting that the region's residents are open to the ideas.

To measure attitudes toward commuting, The Post interviewed 1,003 randomly selected adults in the Washington area from Jan. 27 to 31. At the same time, The Post joined with ABC News and Time magazine to conduct a nationwide survey of 1,204 adults that asked many of the same questions.

Transportation officials said the problem with carpooling is that some HOV lanes are filled with too many vehicles, while others have too few travelers to justify the lanes. Cheaters also anger law-abiders and stall traffic. Regardless, state officials said they couldn't afford new HOV lanes even if they wanted them.

They said charging drivers tolls would raise money to finance the construction, allow for better enforcement and guarantee a smooth ride.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said carpooling "is declining because local governments and businesses have scattered the jobs."

Transportation experts said the lanes tend to work well when there is a commitment to them, as on I-95/395. Those highways have two separated lanes and several roadside parking lots where commuters form carpools.

On a typical morning in 2004, 35,250 people in 9,960 vehicles used the HOV-3 lanes on I-395 that require three occupants, Virginia officials said. Of those, they estimated that 22 percent were violators. The regular lanes carried far fewer people in almost twice as many vehicles -- 22,380 commuters in 19,800 vehicles.

Yvonne Clear is one such carpooler, leaving Fredericksburg each morning at 6 with two others so they can take the HOV lanes. Driving alone, she said, would be "suicidal."

Still, Clear said, the time savings aren't what they used to be. "It gets a little congested when you get toward Dale City, Woodbridge, Springfield, and it's bad from there to the Pentagon," she said.

Regional officials said HOV lanes are far less effective in places where they're a single lane. On those, cheaters run rampant and are hard to catch because they can slip in and out of the lane quickly. Time savings are uncertain and the incentive to use them diminishes.

The HOV-2 lane on I-270, for instance, carried about 1,700 people between 8 and 9 a.m. in spring 2004, Maryland officials said. But the violation rate was as high as 48 percent.

Transportation officials also said HOV-2 doesn't take cars off the road so much as provide a perk to people who would be pairing up anyway.

"You don't get new carpools," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "It's not that hard to get two people in a car."

Instead of stretching the HOV lane north on I-270, Maryland officials are exploring plans to use that space to build express toll lanes. Pedersen also said officials are exploring ways to convert existing HOV lanes into toll lanes.

Mari Sanchez said she'd like to see more HOV lanes, not fewer. She usually drives by herself to work but not on days when she has to travel from Gaithersburg to the District with co-workers.

"We all try to just carpool and come back," said Sanchez, who said more HOV lanes would ease backups on them. As it is, she's not so sure that carpooling saves time.

"I'm starting to think that it could just be an illusion," she said. "I think it saves me time, but I really actually don't know."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company 

HOT Proposals Threaten Slugging, HOV Lanes
The Washington Post, Prince William Section, Letters to the Editor 
February 20, 2005.
[Go to Washington Post article]

Sometimes desperation leads to decisions that make matters worse. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), desperate to relieve congestion in Northern Virginia but starved of the funding to do so, is considering proposals to convert Interstate 95/395 HOV lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Those proposals, although well intentioned, would damage one of our only forms of mass transit and turn our commuting woes into a commuting nightmare.

HOV lanes have succeeded in encouraging thousands of commuters to carpool or take the bus. Carpooling in Northern Virginia means slugging. Slugging is the practice of three strangers leaving two cars behind to ride together on the HOV lanes.

Slugging has become one of best forms of mass transit in the Washington area, and one developed by residents -- not the government. In fact, I slug. Although the HOV lanes can also get crowded, strict enforcement and phasing out the low emission/alternative fuel vehicles next year will keep HOV moving in the right direction.

Now there are two competing proposals from Fluor Virginia Inc. and Clark Construction Group to convert the HOV lanes into HOT lanes. The HOT lanes would continue to allow carpoolers to ride in HOV and single-rider vehicles could use the lanes if they paid a toll. In January, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved both proposals to move to the next stage of review. After going through state and federal environmental review, including public debate, the VDOT commissioner could start negotiating the project in early 2006.

Many arguments can be made against HOT lanes, including the "Lexus lanes" argument. My focus is on a single question, "Will this improve our commute?" The answer is no. Here is why.

Recent VDOT analysis bears out what commuters already know: HOV lanes are at capacity now. Adding single-rider toll payers to the lanes would make the situation worse. In this highly affluent community, many who carpool would choose to pay the toll to ride alone rather than ride with a stranger.

To offset the increased volume resulting from toll payers, the proposals would widen the HOT lanes to three lanes between Dumfries and the 14th Street bridge. But adding a third lane would not offset the additional volume when the lanes narrow again to two lanes at the 14th Street bridge. The net result: more volume, same bottleneck.

Most toll revenue would not be used in Northern Virginia. Common sense would dictate that revenue generated from the tolls would be used to address Northern Virginia's traffic woes. Instead, both proposals would use most of the revenue to extend the HOT lanes past Fredericksburg.

That is of almost no benefit to Prince William and Fairfax counties residents, who would be paying most of the tolls. Although the proposal would add an additional lane to HOT, this could be done at relatively little cost now, because the right-of-way for this lane already exists. Doing so would severely reduce the shoulder widths, posing a significant safety concern. Once we go HOT, we couldn't go back.

If HOT lanes fail, VDOT would be unable to simply back out of its contractual obligations and revert back to HOV. Fluor and Clark tell us not to worry, however, because there are purportedly successful HOT projects in Texas and California. But can we afford to gamble with one of the most successful mass transit solutions in Northern Virginia based on questionable comparisons to very few other examples where this has been attempted?

All this will be discussed at a HOT lane town hall meeting I will be co-hosting with the Committee to Save HOV at 7 p.m. March 14 at the Woodbridge Senior High School auditorium.

For more information, please contact me at 703-792-4643 or cstewart@pwcgov.org.

Corey A. Stewart
Occoquan District Supervisor


County closer to HOT lanes

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Elected officials in Prince William County are looking more closely at plans for pay-to-cruise interstate lanes and they have some commuter-friendly suggestions of their own.

High-Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, should be seriously considered, said members of the Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday after they heard a presentation by Gary Groat, director of project development for Fluor Virginia.

Fluor Virginia, an Arlington-based transportation company, has submitted a public-private partnership bid to build 56 miles of HOT lanes from 14th Street in Washington, D.C., to the Massaponax interchange in Spotsylvania County.

"We really have to examine these proposals because there is no federal or state funding for it," said Supervisor Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, R-at large. "This may be our only hope for road and transit improvements in this corridor."

Fluor's $1 billion proposal would add a third lane to the reversible High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes that exist between the north- and south-bound lanes of Interstate 95.

Instead of requiring two passengers, the new lanes would require three or more passengers per vehicle to avoid a toll charge.

Groat said that in California, where HOT lane popularity is growing, more people are car-pooling to use the HOT lanes without having to pay.

Fluor's design also calls for an additional 24 exit and entrance ramps with some for buses only.

The design, Groat said, encourages bus transit systems.

The Bus Rapid Transit system that is being encouraged with the plan would access existing and undeserved transit areas.

Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan, R-Dumfries, suggested that more park and ride lots be built in Prince William to take advantage of the HOT lanes.

"It looks like there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Caddigan said about the proposal.

VDOT doesn't have plans to extend the existing HOV lanes for years.

Groat said that if environmental impact studies are done within 18 months, construction could begin by 2006.

But the Commonwealth Transportation Board has to first decide if it wants HOT lanes, then who should build them.

Fluor Virginia has made one of two proposals submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Clark/SCC/KPRI made the other proposal and is scheduled to present it to Prince William officials later this year.

The Board will send a letter to the Commonwealth Transportation Board to encourage it to choose HOT lanes and make it speedy.

The Bus Rapid Transit could even be used on U.S. 1, Connaughton suggested.

Instead of calling HOT lanes "Lexus Lanes" as critics sometimes refer to them, Groat suggested a new name.

They're not ways for only the wealthy to bypass traffic jams on the general lanes, he said.

"They should call them "Lumina Lanes," he said, since studies have shown that in California people from all social and economic strata use the HOT lanes.

Single-passenger cars could pay up to $7 dollars or more to drive on them.

Tolls are calculated per mile and the average toll could be about 15 cents per mile, Groat said.

The tolls could change every six minutes and go up or down depending on congestion. If lanes are relatively clear, the charge is low. If they get congested, the rate increases, just like peak phone rates or electricity use times.

Highway managers would be able to keep an eye on the lanes by monitoring about 150 cameras watching the entire stretch of road from Spotsylvania to the District.

Only cars with Smart Tag or EZPass stickers could use the toll lanes because cash won't be accepted. High occupancy vehicles would also use a sticker to indicate that they shouldn't be charged.

Also in the works is a Fluor proposal for a $693 million expansion of the Beltway HOV lanes between the Springfield Interchange and the American Legion Bridge.

Va. Willing to Study Toll Lanes' Potential

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 16, 2003; Page B01

Northern Virginia motorists have moved a step closer to being able to buy their way out of traffic.

With a regional endorsement yesterday, Virginia is seeking $1 million in federal money to study whether to allow lone drivers to pay a toll to use free-moving carpool lanes. The lanes would be studied for highways such as Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway, parts of Interstate 95 and the Dulles Toll Road.

Hurried motorists would have a way to move faster, state officials said, and the money collected could go toward a longer-term traffic solution, such as increasing bus and rail service or improving roads.

"This is a completely new opportunity to manage our highways to give people more choices and get more capacity out of the existing system," said Tom Farley, the Northern Virginia administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The idea of high-occupancy toll, or "HOT," lanes has surfaced in the Washington region before, but it has never gotten a thorough look. This would be the first time Northern Virginia has studied it. Maryland planned to consider the idea for Route 50's new carpool lanes, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) killed it in 2001, saying HOT lanes were unfair to lower-income drivers. Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said HOT lanes did not surface as a major transportation issue during the campaign. He said HOT lanes are not "an immediate priority on the governor's transportation agenda" but that Ehrlich might be open to proposals.

The region's Transportation Planning Board endorsed Virginia's application for the federal money yesterday. The vote was purely symbolic, but the fact that public officials even discussed the possibility of charging people for traffic relief represents a stark shift from the tepid political support HOT lanes have had locally.

Transportation officials across the country are eyeing HOT lanes as a potential solution to traffic and money problems.

Critics say the pay-to-move tolls amount to a tax that creates two tiers of roads, allowing the haves to zoom past the have-nots. Critics have dubbed them "Lexus lanes."

But supporters say the region's traffic woes and dismal financial outlook have gotten so bad that the "Lexus lane" argument is beginning to lose ground. Even the influential AAA, which loudly criticized the idea just 18 months ago, now supports examining HOT lanes as a way to generate badly needed money. It is one of the few potential traffic solutions on which the AAA, highway officials and environmentalists agree.

"I haven't been a fan of HOT lanes, but the fact is we have no money to build roads or mass transit in our region," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for mid-Atlantic AAA. "If we're going to fix our transportation system, it looks like the money is going to have to come from tolls."

Northern Virginia officials took great pains yesterday to tout the lanes as a way to ease traffic, reduce air pollution and use every inch of spare pavement in an otherwise jam-packed road system.

"This won't take care of any short-term budget situation," Farley said. "We're not using this to raise money."

Transportation officials say studies of HOT lanes in southern California and Texas show that they are more "Lumina lanes" than Lexus lanes. Drivers of every income level have been willing to pay a few more dollars when in a hurry, whether they are trying to catch a plane or avoid a late pickup fee at their child's day-care center.

Motorists who have an electronic transponder on their vehicles, similar to Virginia's Smart Tag, can enter the carpool lane. A variable message sign tells them the going rate at that time. Tolls can change every five minutes or so, rising as the lanes become more crowded. Motorists are charged the toll in effect when they entered the HOT lane.

If the carpool lane starts getting too crowded, highway officials raise the toll, hoping to improve traffic flow. The toll rates in California vary from about 75 cents to about $4 during the morning and evening rush. The tolls are automatically deducted from the transponders. Charging more during peak times encourages people to drive at off-peak times, traffic experts say.

State officials say they would like to study opening I-66 inside the Capital Beltway to lone motorists willing to pay. That 11-mile segment is now restricted to carpooling during peak times, jamming side roads and creating one of the region's worst bottlenecks where single drivers are forced to divert from I-66 onto the Beltway. Carpoolers could continue to use the high-occupancy vehicles (HOV) lanes for free.

They say they also want to study HOT lanes on I-395 and on a widened Beltway. If funded, the study would take 18 months, Farley said.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

HOT lanes plan on drawing boards

News & Messenger
Monday, September 29, 2003

A team of three companies is proposing to put HOT lanes on Interstate 95 all the way down to Fredericksburg.
The proposal would convert I-95's existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes, or HOV lanes, into high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, wherein high-occupancy vehicles could still travel for free but solo drivers would pay to use for a price depending on congestion -- thereby supplying a revenue source for the new road.

The proposal was submitted by Clark Construction Group, Shirley Contracting Co. and Koch Performance Roads Inc., according to a summary sent to area elected officials.

Company officials could not be reached late Monday.

The plan was submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation. A VDOT spokeswoman did not return phone calls Monday night.

The proposal was submitted under Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act. It would in phases:

? add a third high-occupancy lane,

? link I-95 HOT lanes into HOT lanes of the Beltway that are proposed to be built by the Flour Daniel Co.

? extend the HOT lanes south to Fredericksburg

Vehicles with three or more passengers could still use the lanes for free during rush hour, but solo drivers will pay variable fees based on time of day and congestion.

Capacity exists on the HOV lanes during peak rush hour times and there is no HOV connection to the Beltway from I-95, "thus reducing its effectiveness as a congestion relief method. As a result, Virginia is not realizing the full value of its investment in its HOV facilities because they carry far fewer vehicles than they could potentially handle."

Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, R-at-large, received a summary of the Clark-Shirley-Koch proposal Monday. He said it should be looked at seriously.

"In an era of declining revenue streams, this may be the only available option to use," Connaughton said. "One of the real positives is that it would remove that bottleneck, the backup practically every day southbound at Dumfries."

The HOV link to Interstate 495 was cut out of the Springfield Interchange project last year to control that project's ballooning costs toward $800 million.

The proposal goes against a plan county Democrats released a month ago that calls for companies to add a third lane to existing HOV lanes, a lane that would be dedicated to a bus-rapid transit system. The plan calls for running the rapid transit buses from the Horner Road commuter lot in Woodbridge north into Springfield and into the District of Columbia.

"HOT lanes can be considered, but should not be on existing lanes that taxpayers have already paid for once," the Democrats' press release stated.

"Why we'd want to tax the people twice to use HOV lanes when they've already been built is beyond me," said David Brickley, Democratic candidate in the 52nd House District.

The cost and time for a third lane to Springfield would be very minimal because the HOV lanes south of the Beltway are already hardened for a third lane, he said.

Interstate 495 does not have any high-occupancy lanes, so there has been very little opposition to its HOT lane proposal. Tolls for the new Beltway lanes would range from $1 to $4.18, according to preliminary estimates in a VDOT summary.

Another plan for HOT lanes

Potomac News
Tuesday, March 16, 2004

There is now competition to add HOT lanes to Interstate 95.
The Fluor Virginia Corp. submitted a $1 billion proposal on Monday that would convert the highway's HOV lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes and extend them south past Fredericksburg and add transit stations for direct bus service.

The proposal came in before today's deadline to submit competing proposals to an initial $500 million 36-mile plan proposed by a team of three companies.

Clark Construction Group, Shirley Contracting Co. and Koch Performance Roads Inc. submitted last September a HOT lane plan that goes from the Beltway to U.S. 17 in Stafford.

"Our initial reaction was it doesn't solve the entire transportation problem," said Gary Groat, Fluor director of project development. The Clark-Shirley-Koch plan doesn't go inside the Beltway to solve congestion there and dumps traffic into regular lanes at U.S. 17, where traffic already slows down because it is a major truck bypass route, he said. "If you're going to build something on I-95, you should solve the entire problem, not just a portion of it."

Vehicles with three people could still travel for free in the HOT lanes. Customers must use electronic toll transmitters so that traffic does not queue up to enter or exit the lanes.

To keep traffic moving, prices go up depending on congestion.

The Fluor plan would:

? convert the two HOV lanes and shoulders on I-95/I-395 to three HOT lanes from Dumfries to Washington, D.C., by at the earliest 2007. A flyover ramp would be added in Dumfries so that HOT lane traffic would more effectively merge with regular traffic.

? By 2010 at the earliest a two-lane 28-mile extension to Massaponax would open.

? Then 16 bus stations, additional ramps and five parking lots would be built to accommodate a bus rapid transit system, which uses large ground-level entry buses.

A total of 32 slip ramps, flyovers and direct linkage ramps are part of Fluor's conceptual proposal.

Groat said the average toll could be 15 cents a mile, or $8.40 to travel the entire 56 miles. The toll would be much higher during rush hour. The toll rates for any HOT lane project would be negotiated with the Virginia Department of Transportation at a later phase in planning.

The Virginia Department of Transportation will evaluate both proposals and determine which one or both will move onto a next phase of detailed review.

"Competition between private firms is good for the Commonwealth, and challenges us all to be more innovative, more cost-effective, and more time-sensitive," said Rick Volk, vice president of Koch Performance Roads, in an initial response to the competing proposal.

Fluor's counterproposal was expected because it has an $800 million proposal to add HOT lanes to the Beltway. After public hearings, VDOT could approve it this year.

The Beltway plan - to add two HOT lanes and rebuild two to five interchanges and add five sets of slip ramps - is subject to change.

A meeting for state and local officials to markup the plan is April 1 in Springfield.

Both I-95 HOT lane plans add a direct ramp between the proposed I-95 HOT lanes to Fluor's proposed Beltway HOT lanes.

Pierce Homer, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation, is leading the advisory panels for all the HOT lane concepts. He said state review of the Beltway proposal has been delayed because resources have had to be devoted to reviewing I-81 tolled improvement projects.

Last month Homer's panel picked a $7.5 billion plan by STAR Solutions to widen and improve truck and car traffic safety on I-81 over a less comprehensive $1.8 billion Fluor proposal.

The STAR Solutions plan is contingent on $800 million in federal dollars emerging from Congress and environmental studies. It would widen the highway to eight lanes, separate truck and car traffic and add tolls.

Environmental impact studies are required on all the projects.

A study is nearly complete for a Beltway widening.

Groat said less environmental study is needed for the adding of HOT lanes to I-95 because it will be done in existing state right-of-way, but to add transit stations would require more study.

A 2nd Look At Snubbed HOT Lanes
Traffic-Fighting Idea Gains Favor in Region
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2003; Page B01

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.


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