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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 02/ 3/2011

How HOT lanes network will work

By Robert Thomson

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.

By Robert Thomson  | February 3, 2011; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting, Construction, Virginia  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, HOT lanes  
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Comments

I know there is, as yet, no rendering of how the toll traffic would exit to the local lanes in Springfield. I'd love to see one, though. There will need to be some kind of new connection, given that at present you cannot exit from the express lanes to the mainline once you've passed the flyover ramp at Newington. The ramps now under construction in Springfield (Phase VIII of the Springfield Interchange project) will connect the Beltway to the existing express lanes on Shirley Highway, but will not connect the express lanes to the mainline.

I suspect the logical place for the connection would be somewhere in the area of the existing Turkeycock ramp between Edsall Road and Duke Street. I would hope that whatever they build feeds into the local lanes on the RIGHT side so that people heading for Landmark wouldn't have to bomb across three lanes of thru traffic to reach a right-hand exit after entering on the left. Putting the ramp at Turkeycock would also dovetail well with the southbound ramps. Then you could have the HOT/HOV switchoff at the same point in both directions, northbound and southbound, perhaps reducing motorist confusion as to the rules.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 12:43 PM | Report abuse

For all commuters who have put up with gridlock and construction delays in building the HOT Lanes on the Beltway, expecting to enjoy faster commutes: You've been had.

You’ll still be sitting in the same gridlock after they are built!

The HOT Lanes will be so expensive that they well earn the nickname "Lexus Lanes." Imagine paying $15 or more a day to drive on these segregated lanes and you'll understand. Yea, if you are late for a meeting, blow the bucks, but a hundred bucks and more every week is a heavy burden for most families.

The problem comes from awarding coveted privileges to one group at the expense of another--a direct violation of the Equal Protection clause in the 14th Amendment. (any attorneys want to litigate this point?)

The elite in the Soviet Union had a similar network of exclusive lanes on roads to speed them to their imperial duties without mixing with the traffic of the lowly proletariat.

Lexus Lanes are vastly more expensive to build than simply widening the road for all people to use, as they require dedicated ramps, segregating barriers to block access by the non-privileged, police enforcement of the privilege, etc.

Widening the Beltway to be similar to I-270 would cost far less, save more gas, and not create an elite class of commuters who look down their noses at those unable to buy their way to a stress-free drive.

Scrap the HOT lanes and let everyone be equal under the law in using our roads.

Posted by: webmaster12 | February 3, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

* 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.

So basically you're going to be taking even more cars that will be using 3 lanes all the way to edsal road and then converging them down to two lanes the rest of the way? More cars going into fewer lanes = massive bottleneck. Isn't anyone modeling this road project BEFORE it's built? This makes no sense at all.

Posted by: gilmoredaniel | February 3, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Research shows that HOT lanes actually do work....if they didn't, why would they be building them all over the place? California (I-15 San Diego), Colorado (I-25 Denver), Minnesota (I-394 Minneapolis), Washington State (SR 167, Seattle), Texas (I-10 Houston), Florida (I-95 Miami), soon Georgia (I-85 Atlanta)...all have working HOT lanes. They are used internationally in city centers in London, Stockholm, Rome, and Singapore, and soon to be locally in San Francisco.

The thing people don't seem to understand is that you can't just build new lanes and open them to all...first of all, there is no way to pay for them, and secondly, those lanes will just fill up over time...as has happened every single time they've widened a road in this area. HOT lanes come with 1) a funding source, and 2) a mechanism to tell people "the lanes are full, you can't fit"....thereby keeping the lanes moving. What use is building 2 new lanes when they are full of traffic and not moving?

The HOT concept is simple. They are HOV lanes, which are favored by the Feds because carpooling is good for the environment and congestion, etc. And they use "market pricing" to sell the extra capacity, thereby ensuring that the lanes are fully utilized to their maximum potential. HOV is nice...especially on I-95/395 where you have a slug system implemented. But HOV cannot be managed actively. HOV-2 might have too many cars in the lanes and they may be congested, while HOV-3 will make the lanes underutilized. HOT sets the HOV threshold high to keep spare capacity that can be actively managed by selling it to those willing to buy it.

And to all the Republicans out there...sorry to make this a political issue, but you all have said over and over that government is bad, private enterprise is good. Market based solutions are best. Well, your pal George W. Bush included the "road pricing" concept in the SAFETEA-LU Transportation reauthorization bill, so now you've got a market based solution free of big-bad government.

Let us also not forget that at the end of the day, Beltway travelers will get 2 new lanes in each direction. Anyone using those lanes will be out of the regular lanes. I guarantee you that in the week those lanes open, regular lane traffic will ease significantly.

Posted by: thetan | February 3, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock, I would LOVE for you to do some articles on the thinking that goes into local area road engineering projects. Why certain roads were routed the way they were, for instance. Why there seems to be an interminable amount of stoplights (at least in Northern Virginia) and very few interchanges between non-interstate roads. Why you get varying numbers of lanes along certain roads that make no sense. Why some roads get improved while others don't. Why Virginia's road signage is so poor.

Also some articles on the latest and greatest in traffic flow modeling, suggestions for driving techniques (merging early vs. merging like a zipper, for instance).

I know your focus is mainly on the "what" of local traffic and commuting, but sometimes the "why" would be interesting too.

Posted by: gilmoredaniel | February 3, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

"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?"

Some elaboration on exactly how these transponders will work would be nice. How does the transponder get set to HOV mode so that a toll does not get charged? Does the driver just flip a switch? If so, what's to prevent a driver from setting it to HOV mode even when he/she doesn't meet the HOV requirement? Seems like the HOT lanes will be impossible to enforce, unlike today's HOV lanes, because there's no way to know by sight whether a single-person vehicle in the lanes is running in toll mode or not. Do the developers of these lanes really think people won't cheat?

Also, if you need a transponder in order to get onto the lanes at all, the scenario of people deciding to pay the toll on the odd occasions when they're in a real hurry and the regular lanes are jammed won't work, because these are the drivers who won't have a transponder on board - for the same reason that people who don't normally travel the East Coast toll corridor still pay their tolls in cash rather than using EZPass.

Ultimately, it seems like these HOT lanes will be used mainly by legal or illegal HOV drivers and rarely by toll-paying customers, which doesn't seem like a revenue model that would cover the cost of building the roads.

Posted by: FeelWood | February 3, 2011 2:58 PM | Report abuse

the only reason i support the hot lanes is because the va. has somehow convinced a private entity to bankroll a massive infrastructure improvement to the beltway in VA. the extra lanes/clearance/right-of-way could be used in the future for rail transportation.

Posted by: destewar | February 3, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

"The elite in the Soviet Union had a similar network of exclusive lanes on roads to speed them to their imperial duties without mixing with the traffic of the lowly proletariat."

Just like those who whiz by in the HOV lanes.

Posted by: ceefer66 | February 3, 2011 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Yes, they've said there will be a switch for the transponder. Apparently they claim they'll be able to identify the HOVs versus the cheaters, but they haven't satisfactorily explained how that will work. Infrared cameras don't seem plausible.

There must be some sort of effective mechanism, though, because California has HOT lanes on CA-91 near Los Angeles (they call them the "91 Express Lanes"). From the pictures I saw on AARoads.com, when you approach the toll gantry on that road the HOV-3+ cars go to the left lane and the toll-paying cars stay in the two right lanes. I don't know how they enforce it if someone cheats, but they must have some sort of mechanism and it apparently works.

Regarding needing a transponder to drive in the lanes, it's unclear why they are sticking by that requirement. Camera-based toll payment technology is already in use on a number of roads (locally to include Maryland's ever-popular Intercounty Connector; otherwise, the best-known such road in North America is probably the Ontario 407 "Express Toll Route" outside Toronto, where you either get a transponder or receive a bill in the mail when the cameras read your plate number). Presumably there will be some sort of camera-based system to help them monitor the traffic so as to set the toll rates and to monitor the HOVs, so it's not clear why they couldn't expand that to toll payment.


"Ultimately, it seems like these HOT lanes will be used mainly by legal or illegal HOV drivers and rarely by toll-paying customers, which doesn't seem like a revenue model that would cover the cost of building the roads."

The general idea seems to be that the average driver wouldn't be using the toll lanes on a daily basis and would instead opt for them when there's a reason to be in a hurry--important meeting, parent who wants to avoid day-care late fees, stuff like that. (Of course you have the self-employed, who can write off the expense on Schedule C, and the people who are getting reimbursed. But that's true of anything requiring payment, not just HOT lanes.) Apparently in other areas HOT lanes have been quite successful (my brother-in-law lives near Fort Lauderdale and says that the ones on I-95 near Miami have been a success), but it's fair to recognize that their setups are less elaborate than what is being done in the DC area and involve shorter segments of road than what VDOT is envisioning as to I-95 tying into the 14-mile segment of the Beltway that will have HOT lanes.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 5:36 PM | Report abuse

* 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.

So basically you're going to be taking even more cars that will be using 3 lanes all the way to edsal road and then converging them down to two lanes the rest of the way? More cars going into fewer lanes = massive bottleneck. Isn't anyone modeling this road project BEFORE it's built? This makes no sense at all.

Posted by: gilmoredaniel | February 3, 2011 2:16 PM

Meant to respond to this. It's not so simple as having "even more cars converging down to two lanes." Only the HOV-3+ vehicles (plus anybody with an HOV exemption, such as motorcycles) and cheaters would be entering the existing two-lane HOV facility north of where the HOT portion ends. The toll-payers who obey the law would be exiting into the local lanes at that point. Of course, this raises the specter of there being a day with a lot of toll-payers who then back up into the HOT lanes if the merge is slow, but the idea is that any such problem wouldn't last because when HOT lane traffic slows, the toll is supposed to go up to discourage further traffic in order to keep the traffic moving. (That's the theory, anyway.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Transponders will have a switch on them that is set to either HOV or toll mode. It will be E-ZPass compatible, so it can be used to pay tolls from Maine to Virginia, east coast to Chicagoland. When paying a regular toll, it doesn't matter what position the switch is in if everyone pays the same toll (Baltimore Tunnels, Dulles Toll Road).

When you enter the HOT lanes, you will have to choose HOV or toll mode on the transponder. The toll system will work like a "ticket system" toll road (but no tickets, all electronic) whereby you get read on the way in, and read on the way out and the toll computed based on how far you drove. When you enter, you'll drive under the reader, and your tag information will be sent to the reader. When the reader identifies it as a valid tag, it will then write information onto the tag...the entry location, the mode that you entered under (HOV or toll), and the toll rate in effect when you entered. This is no different than driving on the Jersey Turnpike with E-ZPass, the reader writes the entry location onto the tag.

When you exit the HOT lanes, the reader will read your tag to determine where you got on, what the toll rate was when you entered, and if you entered as HOV or toll paying. The exact toll amount is then computed and charged to your account if you are in toll paying mode, or sent into an accounting database if you are in HOV mode.

The toll system is like Metro...the rate you pay is the rate in effect at the time you enter. That information is written onto your tag when you get on. Whatever rate is in effect when you enter is what you pay when you get off. VDOT has to use transponders to calculate a toll for HOV's according to the agreement with the operators of the lanes. The toll will not be charged to the customer, but the toll goes into a database so that if the percentage of HOV users exceeds the maximum allowed by the contract, VDOT pays the toll to the company. If HOV users did not have a transponder, then VDOT wouldn't know how much they owe the company.

Now as for enforcement, police officers will likely have remote readers that can read the information written onto your tag. So if you enter as an HOV, that information is written onto your tag, and the cop that scans your tag will see that you declared yourself an HOV when you entered. It doesn't matter what position the switch is in at that moment in time, the fact that you entered as HOV and are not paying a toll is what the cop needs to see...then he knows to count the number of people in the car.

At entrances and exits, there will likely be lights installed on the overhead equipment that will flash one color for toll vehicles with a valid tag, another for HOV vehicles, and another for an invalid or no tag. If the cop sees no tag or HOV with only 1 person, he can pull you over. When you enter as an HOV, and flip the switch and exit in toll paying mode, the light will still flash HOV because you entered as HOV

Posted by: thetan | February 3, 2011 7:59 PM | Report abuse

As I understand it, if you enter without a transponder, the cameras will take a picture of your license plate to send you a fine and bill for the toll (they will just assume you travel to the very end of the lanes I assume)...just like if you drive through any toll booth E-ZPass Only lane with no transponder. They assume you travel all the way to the end just like they do on a ticket toll road like the Jersey Turnpike if you lose your ticket. I'm sure cops can pull you over and cite you for it too (read the fine print, a lot of toll agencies say "even though we have cameras, if a cop sees you run the toll, he can issue a ticket").

As for those with transponders, I'm assuming it will be targetted enforcement. Cops will sit on the side of the road and read your tag as you go by (because you do know your tag has to be mounted, right? Its in the terms and conditions, no holding it up to the windshield!). If they see your tag is in HOV mode, they can look at your car with infrared. If they see only two bodies, then they can radio your license number to a cop down the line with a "hey, might want to check out this car." No ticket will be issued unless the officer actually determines that there are less than 3 in the vehicle. Just like HOV enforcement is now...the infrared doesn't issue the ticket...it just tells the cops which cars they should check and which ones they should ignore (why should they waste their time counting if the transponder is in HOV mode and 7 blobs appear on the infrared). If the officer sees not enough people inside, he can issue a ticket for HOV violation and/or toll evasion.

Now, since the lanes are operated by a private entity, that entity has to pay for the police (just like the Dulles Greenway does...). Since their revenue is dependent on people not cheating, and getting accidents cleared as quick as possible, i bet they will be willing to pay for large numbers of dedicated officers to patrol their road, and buy those officers whatever high tech equipment they need to do their jobs effectively. These officers will be Virginia State Police, but paid for by the toll operator for the sole purpose of patrolling the HOT lanes.

As for why camera tolling can't be done...the cameras can determine exit and entry point, but they can't determine if a vehicle has "declared" themselves HOV or HOT. Besides, its cheaper to do transponder tolling than camera tolling. I think agencies that have no regular toll booths where everyone has to pay (Ontario 407 ETR, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Austin....soon to be a lot of places in the east...Florida, NYC, NJ) will do camera tolls because collecting camera tolls is cheaper than employing union toll collectors. But in cases where you don't HAVE to pay the toll (HOT lanes...you don't have to pay because you can use the regular lanes), the agencies seem to require the transponders. Any E-ZPass will work, but one without the switch means you pay regardless of number of people.

Posted by: thetan | February 3, 2011 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Just widen the roads already and let everybody use them. That's a much better solution.

Posted by: AdventurerVA | February 3, 2011 10:28 PM | Report abuse

The reason the HOT plan was changed and Arlington and Alexandria were left out of the HOT footprint is because VDOT has to get the I-395 contract signed BEFORE the Beltway HOT lanes open. VDOT could not take the chance that fighting the Arlington lawsuit could prevent VDOT from signing a contract with the contractor for the I395 portion before the Beltway lanes are opened. This scares VDOT because once the Beltway lanes open, it will become apparent that the contractor has no viable way to differentiate between a HOT vehicle with 1 person and an HOV with 3+ people. Since the contractor doesn't have a viable technical way to differentiate between the two and so, shortly after the Beltway lanes open, VDOT will have no choice but to discontinue HOV for free on these lanes. If HOV is ended on the Beltway before the contract for the I-395 portion is signed, there is no way the Commonwealth could convert the I-395 lanes because the taxpayer would finally see that VDOT has been lying all along. The Washington Post has never done its job and pressed the contractor or VDOT to explain how they will tell the difference between HOT and HOV. Everyone on these HOT feedback sites always have what they THINK will be the solution, but can anyone tell the commuters of Northern Virginia what the contract for the Beltway lanes says about the technology that will be used to determine a HOT versus an HOV vehicle? You can't because there isn't anyway contractual language about the technology to determine HOT versus HOV short of posting a policeman at every single access point to verify 1 occupant versus 3+ occupants. How can they do this when they can't see into every vehicle to verify the number of occupants when its dark, its rainy, vehicle headlights are on, etc. Since they can't, look for HOV for free to go away shortly after the first HOT lanes are built. THAT'S WHY VDOT NEEDS TO GET THE I395 HOT LANES CONTRACT SIGNED BEFORE THE BELTWAY LANES OPEN and this means dropping the Arlington/Alexandria portion now. This is a scam that will result in HOT being implemented on I-395 and HOV being terminated by the Commonwealth at the request of the Australian company Transurban. The countdown to terminating HOV has begun. Too bad the Washington Post won't do its job and force Transurban and VDOT to answer a very simple question. Guess it's easier to continue to drink the VDOT HOT kool-aid than write a real article.

Posted by: magnnsctt | February 4, 2011 3:55 PM | Report abuse

"This scares VDOT because once the Beltway lanes open, it will become apparent that the contractor has no viable way to differentiate between a HOT vehicle with 1 person and an HOV with 3+ people. Since the contractor doesn't have a viable technical way to differentiate between the two and so, shortly after the Beltway lanes open, VDOT will have no choice but to discontinue HOV for free on these lanes."

As has been noted in the other comments in this thread, other jurisdictions with HOT lanes don't seem to have this problem, so it's unclear why so many naysayers think it will be unworkable in the DC area. I'm sure there will be people who try to beat the system, and I'm sure some will succeed, which is no different from just about every other road out there. That's hardly a valid criticism of the entire project, though.

I'm all for the Beltway HOT project, even if I don't use it that often, because it will result in the reconstruction of the horribly-designed interchange between I-66 and the Beltway, a project VDOT was unable to fund due in large part to political reasons (it would have been a massive hot potato to do it so soon after the Springfield Interchange and the Wilson Bridge). That interchange is a relic from the days when I-66 ended at the Beltway and the period before highway engineers came to understand the problems with left-lane exits and entrances. The HOT project will finally see it redesigned.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 4, 2011 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Price-managed lanes work in managing and relieving congestion, and the benefits accrue to all users not just those in the priced lanes. Combine them with ramp metering, enhanced incident management strategies, bus rapid transit, enhanced ride-sharing initiatives and you get even better results. 95 Express delivered significant increases in travel speeds and trip reliability, and decreases in travel times for all users. Pricing strategies were not designed to generate revenue but to manage demand. Consider that the alternative to building these facilities can be significantly more costly (by a factor of 5 or more) and can have significant environmental impacts. Now more than ever governments need to look at ways of effectively improving mobility (the life blood of any real economic recovery and sustainable growth) in the most cost effective way possible. Mobility (a service that almost every single person relies upon every single day) is not free and failing to provide it is incredibly expensive.

Posted by: riveradebora | February 9, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

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