- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

The 57-mile trip from Bennett Bell’s home in Fredericksburg, Va., to his job in the District takes an hour and five minutes — in the theoretical world of MapQuest.

In real life, Mr. Bell spends anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours driving each way on Interstate 95. On a bad week, that adds up to 20 to 25 hours in the car and means missing his children’s school functions and arriving late to office meetings.

It is a familiar tale in the fast-growing Washington area. Now regional transportation officials want to offer even solo commuters like him a faster, more predictable ride — for a price.

Virginia and Maryland have plans to keep traffic humming by build new express lanes and employing market forces by charging premium tolls. It is an approach being tried across the country and one that is championed by the Bush administration, transportation planners and some environmentalists as a potential tool for solving the country’s traffic woes.

In Virginia, the state Department of Transportation is working with the private sector to build the new fast lanes on Interstates 95 and 395 and the Capital Beltway.

Virginia’s high-occupancy/toll lanes — HOT lanes — would be free to vehicles with three or more people. But unlike traditional high-occupancy vehicle lanes, even drivers who are by themselves could use them for a fee. The plan calls for building new lanes and converting existing carpool lanes on I-95 to the HOT model.

HOT lanes have been hailed as a success in California and are in place in Colorado, Minnesota and Texas. Transportation analysts say they have greater potential to ease congestion than HOV lanes, which often have excess capacity because too few people carpool.

In Maryland, officials are planning “express toll lanes” — similar to HOT lanes but without the free ride for carpoolers. The lanes would be on a segment of I-95 north of Baltimore and on the upcoming Intercounty Connector, which crosses Montgomery County and connects Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and I-95 in Laurel. Officials say the lanes might also be used on their stretch of the Beltway and on I-270.

Both plans call for tolls that would vary according to the time of day and the amount of traffic. Vehicles would be required to have transponders, so there would be no need for traffic-slowing toll booths.

Not everyone likes the concept. Commuters who use the HOV lanes around Washington fear Virginia’s plan will put too many paying customers on existing carpool lanes. And some environmentalists and anti-sprawl activists say such changes will only bring more vehicles to the roads.

Mr. Bell says he probably would pay the toll on occasion but questions whether HOT lanes are fair to taxpaying drivers.

“It’s my tax money paying for this to begin with,” said Mr. Bell, 42, a retail manager at AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Why am I paying a second time?”

Since HOT lanes were introduced in the mid-1990s on highways in San Diego and Orange County, Calif., they have been credited with improving efficiency, even as the number of vehicles on the roads has continued to rise.

“In many of these urban environments, you can’t build your way out of congestion,” said Ken Daley, of Transurban Group, an Australian company that is one of two private partners in the Virginia HOT lanes projects. “So you’ve got to use travel-demand management techniques. You’ve got to promote higher vehicle occupancy, and you’ve got to give people options.”

On San Diego’s Interstate 15, traffic typically hums along at about 65 mph on the HOT lanes, project manager Derek Toups said. Carpooling has increased sharply from the road’s HOV days, perhaps because solo drivers acquire a taste for the fast lanes but don’t like the bills, he said.

Though detractors often call toll lanes “Lexus Lanes” — suggesting only the rich can afford them — supporters say studies indicate people across income levels use them when needed.

The tolls also can help fund public transportation or road expansion. That has helped convince some skeptics, including Mr. Bell’s employer, of their value.

John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the organization worries about creating “haves and have-nots on the roads,” but thinks the lanes may help ease congestion and get new roads built.

Other environmentalists support congestion pricing because, they say, free-flowing vehicles create less pollution than those stuck in traffic and because tolls could encourage some drivers to stay off the road altogether or take public transit.

But Michael Replogle, transportation director of Environmental Defense, is critical of the projects in the Washington area because they involve building new lanes, instead of converting existing HOV lanes. He also laments the lack of significant new investment in public transit, which he says is needed for toll lanes to be effective.

“If it’s done well, tolls can be used to help better manage traffic and cut pollution, and can help fund new public transportation,” Mr. Replogle said. “All too often, though, these tolls are used simply to build more roads faster.”

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