High Occupancy / Toll Lanes

washingtonpost.com: A 2nd Look At Snubbed HOT Lanes
The Reason Public Policy Institute has been out front on ways to privatize (or charge for) portions of the roads and HOT lanes are one way to do it. The idea is that existing HOV lanes be turned into toll lanes for cars with a single person in them. It would ease congestion and provide funds for additional construction. Without some sort of market mechanism, such as congestion pricing, roads will be just like any other resource that is part of the commons or has open access: it will be overused.

RPPI has another idea to build toll lanes alongside existing roads that would be used exclusively by truckers and would be financed exclusively through tolls. We’re a long way from that but, given the number of trucks on the road, it can’t happen too soon for me.

Along with water, roads are one of the most misallocated products in the country. Every time a connector is built in a large urban area, it fills up. There’s no incentive to economize in any way, either through carpooling, telecommuting or flex-time at work. A pricing structure would provide that incentive.

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.”

The WaPo has an editorial in favor of this concept as well.

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