How HOT lanes network will work
If the I-95 High Occupancy Toll lanes project goes ahead as described by Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton, then the state will have created a remarkable 40-mile long network of managed lanes for commuters who work in such job centers as Tysons Corner, Merrifield, Fort Belvoir and Quantico.
This would be the first major state effort to ease congestion in Northern Virginia, and it won't make everyone happy. For example -- and it's a big example -- this is the same plan for I-95 that has made Prince William County's sluggers so nervous. While these carpoolers would still have free access to the lanes once they become HOT, many know they already have a good thing going, and many object to any change in the status of the lanes.
They have reason to be concerned. On the Capital Beltway HOT lanes, the part already under construction along 14 miles between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road, everyone using the HOT lanes will need to have a transponder, and that's also likely to be true in the I-95 HOT lanes.
The transponder will have a setting to identify High Occupancy Vehicles with at least three people aboard, but will the device cost them? And if the toll lane operators can't meet their financial goals at some point in the future, they ask, would they wind up being charged for their rides?
All commuters in the corridor will want to pay attention to the design of the new connections at Springfield. There will be even more going on at the Mixing Bowl than there is now. Many toll payers and carpoolers will head west toward their jobs in places like Tysons. But many others will continue north. They might be three-person carpools, in which case they'll want the HOV lanes. Or they might have been toll payers from the HOT lanes, who now will need to move into the already-crowded general purpose lanes to continue their trips north to the Mark Center or the Pentagon or the 14th Street Bridge.
Whenever a project increases traffic capacity, it's best to take a hard look at where the increased capacity part ends. Beltway commuters who cross the Potomac River into Maryland in the morning already have expressed concern about potentially greater congestion at the American Legion Bridge once the Beltway HOT lanes are completed. (Maryland has no current plan to increase capacity on its side of the Beltway.)
On the other hand, the Virginia Department of Transportation is hoping that the I-95 HOT lanes will ease another bad bottleneck on the south side of where the HOV lanes end at Route 234 in Dumfries.
I like the HOT lanes program for several reasons: One simply is that I haven't seen any better idea for easing commuter congestion in that part of Northern Virginia in the lifetime of today's commuters. Another strong reason is that the program offers great opportunities to extend the infrastructure for carpoolers and bus riders by creating more park and rides and extending bus services. Also, enforcement of the carpool rules is likely to become more effective in the HOT lanes, and hybrids won't have an exemption.
I agree with Connaughton that these HOT lanes won't serve as "Lexus Lanes." Because the toll rate has no ceiling, the cost of a long daily commute in the HOT lanes would indeed be extremely high. But even the people who hope to make money on the HOT lanes operation don't expect they'll have many customers like that. They think their typical customer will be a person who is late for an appointment and wants to dodge a particularly crowded stretch of highway on a particular day.
Still, I think the jurisdictions in Northern Virginia need to consider this for the long-term: Anything that makes it easier for commuters to travel 40 miles should raise concerns about land use and development. One of the reasons the D.C. region is among the most congested in the nation is that we made it relatively easy for people to live far away from their jobs, and for employers to pick locations accessible only by car. Commuters are paying the price for that now, and their children may pay more.
Here are some more details from VDOT about the I-95 plan and the Beltway tie-in:
* The new I-95 HOV/HOT lanes project will create approximately 29 miles of HOV/HOT lanes on I-95 from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to the vicinity of Edsall Road on I-395 in Fairfax County.
* Two new reversible HOV/HOT lanes would operate for nine miles from Route 610/Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to Route 234 in Dumfries, where the existing HOV lanes begin.
* The existing HOV lanes would be widened from two lanes to three lanes for 14 miles from the Prince William Parkway to approximately two miles north of the Springfield Interchange in the vicinity of Edsall Road.
* Improvements would be made to the existing two HOV lanes for six miles from Route 234 to the Prince William Parkway.
* Access points would be added or improved in the areas of Garrisonville Road, Joplin Road, Prince William Parkway, Fairfax County Parkway, Franconia-Springfield Parkway, I-495 and in the vicinity of Edsall Road, just north of the Beltway.
* VDOT says the HOV/HOT lanes will keep traffic moving by adjusting the tolls based on the current level of congestion, using video technology to identify accidents and electronic signs to communicate with drivers, and state troopers to ensure enforcement. "These strategies will help maintain travel speeds, make travel times more predictable and significantly reduce violators," VDOT said.
| February 3, 2011; 11:45 AM ET
Categories: Commuting, Construction, Virginia | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, HOT lanes
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