Sunday, May 15, 2005

High-occupancy toll, or HOT, traffic lanes have long been studied and debated as four hummed along in Houston and Southern California. Now, as three other major urban areas have moved to implement HOT this year, the concept has further emerged into metro Washington’s transit debate thanks to the recent decision of the regional transit-planning board to modestly advance it.

HOT lanes can take multiple forms and functions, but the main concept allows solo drivers into high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which are often underused, for a fee, or allows solos and double-occupancy vehicles where before only vehicles containing three or more were allowed. HOT harnesses technologies that allow overhead sensors to detect small prepaid windshield cards and deduct the proper toll, obviating the need for traditional traffic-slowing toll stations.

The four HOT systems extant since the 1990s have worked, in all, very well. They’ve mitigated congestion, further encouraged carpooling beyond the impetus of traditional HOV and raised significant revenue. Hence the actions of greater Minneapolis on I-394, Denver on I-25 and Seattle, which gained funding for a HOT route south of the city.

In late April, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, which comprises many jurisdictions and agencies of Virginia, Maryland and the District, considered HOT for the first time and voted to study its likely impact on regional air quality, meeting a criterion for further movement. If HOT is approved this fall for inclusion in the the board’s long-term plan, its probable first local manifestation would be new lanes on the Beltway’s west side, ostensibly to be developed without much if any tax money.

HOT alone is no panacea. But its place in an array of “hardware” and “software” solutions — hardware, including roads and mass transit, already developed here to within sight of physical limits; software, perhaps even more challenging, including attitudes about commuting and personal travel — should be clear.

Beyond dispute is the need for change. The capital region’s economic loss due to time and energy burned in congested traffic was estimated at $2.5 billion for 2001. Though policy wonks will try, it’s impossible to truly measure the costs to individual welfare and to society from such lost time and energy and increased stress.

Driving the problem (no pun intended) are peculiarly American lifestyles. In 2001, said the U.S. Transportation Department, more than 91 percent of workers commuted by car in a given week. Many prefer to drive alone, even in sport-utility vehicles. This will change; the question is how soon and how painfully.

Metro today comprises a 103-mile rail network of 84 stations and a vast bus network. Both will expand even as they face challenges of management and aging. Metro prevents a third of a billion car trips a year, a huge achievement, preventing an unliveable situation. Carpooling and HOV help some more, but too few people actually use them.

Thus the call for HOT, as an insufficient but useful measure to accompany significant attitude and lifestyle changes. Until most urbanites use mass transit, telecommute or drive small, efficient cars with multiple passengers, the problem cannot be vanquished, only managed.

We decry rising gas prices, now at unheard-of levels in unadjusted terms, but most of us stubbornly resist changing driving habits. Some economists and policy analysts say U.S. gas prices should resemble those of other industrialized democracies. But increases by multiples rather than fractions — sufficient to alter driving habits — are less likely than even an oft-discussed 50-cent-per-gallon tax, once championed by Sen. John Kerry and advocated before 2000 even by President Bush’s former chief economist, N. Gregory Mankiw.

Some critics score HOT. They cite California’s SR-91, whose early HOT results included increased congestion in regular lanes from HOVers unwilling to pay and forced out. But SR-91 gradually became a success. And elsewhere, carpooling in San Diego’s I-5 corridor has increased 80 percent since HOT began in 1996. Several factors, including whether dedicated HOT lanes will supplement or supplant existing HOV lanes, or whether HOV will simply convert part-time to HOT, govern whether a particular HOT project will benefit a specific metropolis. Design and implementation matter.

Another criticism is that HOT lanes are “Lexus lanes,” offering the privileged an outlet unavailable to the blue-collar worker in an old car. The charge, while considerable to the extent true, should be even more a nonstarter around here than in Houston and Southern California. We have many Lexuses whose self-important drivers would pay to gain time, which to them equals money. As they move into HOT, “regular” drivers become nonpaying beneficiaries of reduced congestion.

Boxers are taught to punch in combinations for effect greater than the sum of the parts. Effective public-policy strategies can likewise apply mutually supportive measures, like more and better mass transit coupled with innovative road use. The latter will help fund the former.

Meaningful attitude adjustments are the best road ahead for metro Washingtonians.

Mark W. Powell edits an aviation magazine. Last year he participated in a study of transit options including HOT in George Mason University’s graduate school of public policy.

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