- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2003

The recent decision by Virginia’sCommonwealth Transportation Board to consider a proposal to build High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the Beltway in Virginia as a way of easing traffic congestion has raised some eyebrows. After all, having the private sector build new lanes paid for by those drivers who actually use them flies in the face of how we have historically funded highway construction. As a leader in the fight against the sales-tax increase proposed last year to address the region’s transportation problems, I believe that market-based approaches involving the private sector offer the best way to address the growing congestion on our area’s highways. Last year, I argued for HOT lanes as one alternative to the sales-tax increase, and since then, HOT lanes have been gathering momentum in Northern Virginia.

HOT lanes are restricted-access lanes reserved for buses and other high-occupancy vehicles, as well as single-occupancy drivers who pay a toll. The tolls — which would be collected electronically without toll booths — would largely pay for the new lanes.

The number of cars using the HOT lanes could be regulated through variable pricing that would go up or down depending on the congestion in the HOT lanes. For example, if the average speed of the HOT lanes dropped below 50 mph, the toll would rise until the speed came back up to a target speed, such as 55 mph. Such “congestion pricing” uses market forces to keep traffic moving and reduce pollution. By guaranteeing a target speed, drivers will know what they’re getting for their toll dollars.

So far, the only HOT lane proposal in the area is on the Beltway from the American Legion Bridge to the Mixing Bowl. However, my vision for Northern Virginia includes creating an entire network of HOT lanes: on Route 66 from Haymarket to Washington; on I-95/395 from Fredericksburg to Washington; on the Dulles Toll Road; and on Route 28 and the coming Tri-County Parkway. Such a network of guaranteed, congestion-free HOT lanes would allow us to run an entirely new kind of mass transit, called Bus Rapid Transit (“BRT”). Think of BRT as a subway on wheels, but without the extraordinary expense of running new heavy rail lines. It is nothing like our current bus service, and my hope is that it will be privately owned and operated. BRT would provide convenient, useful mass-transit options for outer Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and even Stafford and Spotsylvania Counties that are simply not possible today.

Of critical importance is the fact that HOT lanes are largely self-funding, thanks to the tolls voluntarily paid by drivers to use these new lanes — a fair and common-sense approach. It’s also important to remember that HOT lanes are not traditional toll roads. HOT lanes are always used alongside a free alternative, so drivers don’t have to pay the toll to use the road — it’s purely voluntary. By encouraging private-sector entrepreneurs to identify and develop solutions to today’s traffic needs, we can quickly respond to those needs without increasing the size of government, further raising taxes or getting bogged down in years of studies and bureaucratic red tape. HOT lanes offer both the solution to overcrowded highways and the way to pay for them.

HOT lanes are already successful in California, a region well-known for its traffic congestion. In San Diego, two lanes of I-15 that had been reserved for high-occupancy vehicle traffic but were underutilized were converted to HOT lanes, with the result that the addition of paying vehicles substantially increased the use of those lanes. Additionally, there was no negative impact on carpooling, which actually went up after the switch to HOT lanes. Even during peak rush hour traffic, the use of variable pricing has maintained congestion-free conditions.

And it is not only the more affluent drivers who benefit. Utility vans, delivery trucks and Chevy Luminas are a far more common sight than the proverbial Lexus. So, what do these HOT lane users have in common? They’ve made the decision that a quicker trip at that particular time is important — and therefore worth paying for.

In Orange County, Calif., four new lanes built in the median of the existing SR 91 opened in 1995. Developed and operated by a private firm, the tolls vary by hour and day of the week, and are adjusted several times a year to reflect changes in traffic. The increased capacity significantly reduced peak-period congestion along the highway for all drivers — not just those on the HOT lanes. According to a recent survey, the large majority of paying customers do not use the lanes every day. Rather, they make a day-by-day decision weighing the price against the time.

This same approach would work well in Northern Virginia, especially since no other viable alternatives are on the horizon. Local and state officials should support private HOT lane proposals that would reduce our congestion with minimal investments of taxpayer funds. HOT lanes are an idea whose time has come for this region, and the Beltway is a good place to start.

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli is a Republican representing Virginia’s 37th District.

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