More than 60% of D.C.-area workers over the age of 16 drive to work alone. This means that on the Capital Beltway, rush hour commutes often – and unpredictably – turn into hours-long, soul-crushing rides. It’s bleak. But people still take their cars. So in the next few years, Virginia is putting in four High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes on its side of the Beltway to see if that makes a difference. At TheCityFix, we’re following the debate about whether it actually works to reduce congestion and encourage carsharing.
You may remember us talking about HOT lanes before: here we discussed HOT lanes while comparing the separate transportation policy proposals of 2009 Virginia gubernatorial candidates Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds; and here we talked about the pros and cons of using tolls to try to get more people to carpool.
On Sunday, the Washington Post published a “primer” for HOT Lanes, clearing up some of the murky details in the discussion about the new project.
The Beltway’s new lanes will be free to any car with three or more people, along with buses, motorcycles, and emergency vehicles. 18-wheel trucks won’t be allowed on the HOT lanes, and all other vehicles will have to pay the toll to gain access. Hybrid cars, previously exempt from such tolls in the state, will abide by the same rules as all other vehicles. And to use the lanes, drivers will need to have a transponder; an EZPass will work for individual drivers, but carpoolers will need to get a new transponder with a “carpool” switch, which is still being designed.
Officials representing Fluor-Transurban, the consortium of two private companies that will run the HOT lanes together with the Virginia Department of Transportation, will not set fares based on the time of day; rather, the toll will rise as traffic rises, and vice versa. This makes the pricing scheme different from Maryland’s Intercounty Connector, which sets tolls based on the time of day.
The HOT lane promise is 55-mile-per-hour, free-flowing traffic at all times.
Unfortunately, in spite of putting a price on congestion, HOT lanes don’t seem to change people’s driving habits, so they’re not great for sustainability. In addition, HOT lanes – and tolls in general – have an important equity question attached to them, which we have discussed before: they can create a two-tier road system where only richer drivers can afford to pay for less congested roads and faster travel time. In some states, revenue expenditure has been structured to invest in alternative benefits or compensations for those who cannot afford the toll. However, the Virginia HOT lane website has not indicated any such plan, as yet. Revenues from the HOT lanes are set to go toward paying for and repairing the lanes.