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What Would You Pay? And How?

How much would you pay to stay out of traffic congestion? In today's Post, Eric Weiss writes about the plans to build the high occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes in Virginia along the west side of the Capital Beltway and along I-95/395.

Since the goal is to keep the extra lanes free of congestion and maintain highway speeds, there's no limit on what the tolls can be. Estimates are that they will be a dollar a mile during rush periods, but that's not a cutoff.

You get to put the old equation "Time is Money" into practice. Every day.

Sluggers hate the HOT lanes because they believe this will end their informal and highly successful system of carpooling. That's a separate question.

For the majority of people who drive alone, how much time would you save on your trip if you could travel the interstate part at a consistent speed of at least 45 mph? Would you pay at least a dollar a mile to do that? Would you pay it every day?

You're reading this on a computer screen -- and I hope you're not driving. But can you picture making the decision on the toll as you drive to or from work? Maybe you hit the snooze bar once to many times this morning? Or maybe a meeting will run too long this afternoon, and you'll be late to pick up a child at day care? What will your highway time be worth then?

Think of how you'll pay it: No rolling down the window and handing over cash. This will be by transponder, similar to E-ZPass. Painless, for the moment.

Here's a followup question: Since you're going to pay one way or another for any relief from traffic congestion, is this the way you'd prefer to pay? Those highways got built through everyone's taxes. Some people think it's fairer to spread the burden around like that. Others believe that it's best to have the users pay for the improvements that help them. In that view, we've only just begun to plan a highway tolling system that charges people for their rides.

[Join me at 1 p.m. today for an online discussion of all your traffic and transit concerns. If you'd like to submit a question or comment ahead of time, here's a link you can use.]

By Robert Thomson  |  February 25, 2008; 8:02 AM ET
Categories:  Congestion  
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Next: Weekend Frustrations on Red Line


Judging by how well VDOT currently handles bottlenecks, lane-ending merges, signage, and toll collection, there is no way this will work. The endpoints WILL be a chokepoint, just like where the "Truck Lanes" and "Car Lanes" of the NJ Tpke come together at Exit 8A. Since you eventually have to cross the same chokepoints, I wouldn't pay anything - it will take you just as long, if not longer, to re-merge in with the "common peons", not to mention the debacle of "high speed toll collection" - if it's anything like the DTR, good luck with that VDOT.

Posted by: Ex-New Jersey resident | February 25, 2008 9:11 AM | Report abuse

What is the per mile charge to ride Metro? How much of the road system is paid for by gas taxes, tire taxes, DMV chareges and other user fees. How much of the transit system is paid for by user fees?

My basic rule of thumb will be: If they set the user fees at a level I cannot easily afford, my state rep and senator had better start preping thier resumes. Ditto, if HOT lanes undermine the SLUG system.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | February 25, 2008 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Whatever it takes to kill the slugs! I'll better pay than take 2 strangers into my car to use HOV!

Posted by: Anonymous | February 25, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

I'm fine with the idea of HOT lanes. My solution to traffic was to pay through the nose for a small house in Arlington, which puts me inside the worst transportation bottlenecks. If you instead elected the trade-off of living further from D.C. / Tysons / wherever you work in order to buy a bigger / nicer house than you could afford to buy / rent closer to the office, you should either accept the traffic or agree to pay for an improvement personally. Unless you've been in the same house in the outer burbs since 1980, odds are the traffic pre-dates your arrival and was entirely foreseeable.

HOT lanes seem like a great solution that will bill those who actually need / use them, and will not increase the tax burden of those who don't. If you don't want to pay for them and don't like the traffic on the non-HOT lanes, there is a solution: move.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | February 25, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

fukc the poor

Posted by: Arlington, VA | February 25, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Congestion pricing, which is the basis for the HOT lanes, is fair only if there is a reasonable alternative to paying the toll in order to expedite one's travel. Unfortunately, using mass transit would increase my commute time from 1 hour each way to over 2 hours each way, which is not a reasonable alternative. Unless the region improves mass transit and makes it a viable alternative, HOT lanes is simply a cowardly method for politicians to "fix" the traffic problem without actually making the difficult choices we expect them to make. At $1 per mile (as if!), my annual commuting cost would be $5,600, which is simply absurd, considering the taxes I am already paying through fuel purchases.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 25, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

"My solution to traffic was to pay through the nose for a small house in Arlington, which puts me inside the worst transportation bottlenecks."

Yep. I live on Cap Hill, drop the daughter off at daycare via bicycle a few blocks from my house, and ride in to work. Big mortgage, little house, very happy...

Posted by: ibc | February 25, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

The chances of me using HOT lanes? Zero. I don't have a EZ-Toll/EZ-Toll transponder, and have no plans to get one, which precludes me from using HOT lanes. I quit a job in DC in the 90's when it became too much of a hassle to commute into the District, and I'll re-evaluate my current job/commute (I drive I-95 to Woodbridge)if the HOT lanes cause the free lanes of I-95 to become gridlocked (which I expect.) My work hours are just too unpredictable to ride a bus or carpool.

I have no problem if a private company wants to build a new toll highway, but am quite annoyed that VA is giving away the existing HOV lanes. My understanding of the contract is that if the number of HOV cars exceeds a certain threshold, the state will actually have pay compensation to the private toll firm. Anyone want to bet the law of unintended consequences will bite us big time? Who know what else the state failed to properly negotiate?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 25, 2008 10:17 AM | Report abuse

As I understand it, the HOT lanes will be free for HOV-3 and the paying customers will be charged as much as is necessary to maintain a speed of 45 mph. (Is this correct?)

Can anybody tell me how often the price will change? Daily? Hourly? By the second? I assume the price will be posted at the entrance ramp. Anybody know?

Posted by: Jose23 | February 25, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Not one red cent to greedy coporations stealing the public infrastructure paid for by taxpayers. How quickly we forget why we came to have public roads and the private roads of the 19th century all went bust.

Anyone read the sign at the corner of Ravensworth and Little River Turnpike? It's "turnpike" because Rt 236 used to be a private road to get you from Alexandria to the Little River in Aldie, VA. It went bust when the economy tanked and eventually the state took it over. Meanwhile in New York governor DeWitt Clinton built the Erie Canal with public funds -- it became the reason for NYC's great success in the 19th century.

In short Roads should be paid by taxes and tolls going directly to the government. If there's a profit to be made in roads, it belongs to the public to plow back into the transportation fund.

Posted by: HokieAnnie | February 25, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

I don't understand the comment above about "greedy corporations stealing public infrastructure." Private investment is needed to pay for new or improved infrastructure that the public simply isn't willing to pay for. Infrastructure across the country just simply isn't being maintained properly, since in a democracy, politicians who want to keep their jobs can not raise taxes. HOT lanes are new infrastructure and aren't being "stolen".

I feel that HOT lanes are a great idea because it gives those willing to pay an alternative option to get to their destination faster. The side benefit is that dynamic pricing will maximize the use of all lanes, whereas at the present time, many HOV lanes are underutilized. This benefits everyone.

I don't buy the argument from anyone who complains about having no other alternative to commute. I pay a premium to live close to my job and have access to transit. The reason large houses far from the city are relatively inexpensive is because the commutes are longer and there may not be rail or other transit modes to get to work. But, that is the trade-off any homeowner makes when choosing to live in the exurbs. As someone wrote above, if you don't like your situation, move.

Posted by: pjolicoe | February 25, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I would be happy to pay if it did any good. Instead, these proposals have mostly dead ends which will just make the people who pay big money for the convenience mad because it won't help them. If I could pay $3 (that's $1/mile) to get from the Dulles Toll Road to American Legion Bridge to guarantee I could make it to my daughter's soccer games, you bet I would spend the money.

No different than the current Orange Crush getting further squeezed if the silver line, as proposed, goes through. Stupid plan. The busiest part of the Beltway is from 66 to 270. You think a solution would include that whole section instead of dead ending???

Maryland will probably study the proposal for another 40 years then have 3 more governors debate about the need for it and alternately support then kill it. No matter by then we will have 22 hour rush, only off from 1am - 3am and road crews won't be able to do any maintenance due to too much traffic.

DC won't support it until there's a commuter tax.

Posted by: Steven | February 25, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

The Commonwealth of Virginia continues to promote HOV-3 vehicles will travel for "free" on the new high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. However, that fact is blatantly false and the taxpayers of Virginia, (including you that live in Arlington and "close in") are not being told the truth. Here are the facts that the media should and must challenge VDOT and the elected officials of Virginia on:

In the HOT contract between the Commonwealth and Fluor Daniels/Transurban of Australia, the Commonwealth has agreed to pay 70% of the existing toll once HOV-3 volume exceeds 24% of the total traffic volume on the HOT lanes. So to say that HOV-3 will remain free is blatanly false and misleading and should be addressed by the media. Maybe you can tell the taxpayers of Virginia what "free" HOV really means by using the following example:

At $1.00 per mile 9or more as you stated in your article) during peak rush hours - Eleven miles between Springfield and the Pentagon for each single driver that's $11.00 each way, $22.00 each day, $440.00 each month, $5280.00 each year, per commuter of discretionary money robbed from the local economy and flies off to Australia.

For the so-called "free" HOV-3 vehicles, at 70% of the toll, 2,000 Springfield HOV-3 vehicles equates to $7,392,000 of Virginia Commonwealth tax revenue that leaves the Virginia economy, leaves the USA, and flies off to Australia. (2000 x $5280 x 70%)

And this is just Springfield HOV-3. Multiply this example by a factor of 10 or more for the entire HOT project and then answer the question, "How long do you think HOV-3 will remain "free"? Its a well known fact that Northern Virginia is shortchanged when it comes to transportation funding. During times of fiscal shortfalls, as we are experiencing now, Richmond will either cut these funds entirely or will quickly move to use these funds on "higher priority" Commonwealth initiatives. Or an alternative, Richmond can threaten these funds unless taxes are raised to pay for any non-transportation initiatives. Funny how that fact never makes the news. If I am wrong, it simply means a faster commute for all involved. If VDOT is wrong, then the resulting gridlock will make Feb 12th and the Mixing Bowl seem like a fast trip home. Don't you think someone should get some answers before this is implemented instead of proving platitudes like "....we're working hard to come up with a solution".

One final point. It seems to ring hollow the line that there is no money for transportation, but in order to help Fluor and Transurban, we have suddenly found money to discuss widening the 14th Street and American Legion Bridges. Will Transurban help pay for that or is this another Commonwealth Corporate Welfare project?

Please perform the government watchdog role you are famous for and do an article on "free" HOV, the impacts on the taxpayer of Virginia, and whether it is dedicated funding or can be re-directed at the discretion of the General Assembly at any time.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 25, 2008 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I have very mixed feelings on this. Be sure to look at both sides of the issue....

Pro-HOT lane thoughts: On the Beltway, taxpayers paid for 4 lanes each direction. If new lanes are added, and only the new lanes are tolled, nothing that was free is being taken away from taxpayers. Here a private firm is willing to step in and build new lanes at a fraction of the cost it would otherwise cost taxpayers...and at the end of the day, there will be 4 new lanes on the Beltway. People say they want alternatives to HOT lane tolls, and alternatives, in the form of new mass transit options, will be much easier to create in the future. One of the reasons people dislike mass transit is because of the unpredictability of the trip time....and this factor will be removed from the equation once we have lanes that are guaranteed to be moving at 45 MPH. Also, I think it is important to set forth some kind of access restrictions or method of "cutting off" the number of cars entering the new lanes. All too often, we build new infrastructure only to have greedy developers "use up" all the new capacity in 5 years which was supposed to last for 20 years. This happened on I-66 and I-270. With a method of denying vehicles access to the lanes, you can ensure that the lanes are still beneficial to the majority of users by preventing congestion. If the lanes have a capacity of 1000 cars per hour, and 900 cars want to use it, then 900 cars are benefiting from the existance of those lanes. If 1200 cars want to use the lanes, the resulting congestion means *ZERO* cars benefit, because they are all sitting in a jam not moving. Price is a great way to control the flow of traffic into the lanes since the variability can be adjusted in small increments. HOV restrictions can only be incremented from 4 to 3 to 2 with no "in between" steps..and while 3 might mean the lanes are nearly empty, 2 could mean traffic jams.

The Anti-HOT lane argument: Taxpayers paid for the HOV roadway on I-395/I-95 already. They paid for it with the understanding that they could use it for free with 3 people during HOV hours, which will not change, but they also paid for it with the understanding that they could use it for free outside rush hours. Now that right is being taken away which isn't fair. Private investment in infrastructure is not the most efficient way to get stuff built. Estimates are that the Dulles Greenway cost several times what it would have cost VDOT to build it, for 2 reasons: 1) VDOT can issue bonds with a much lower debt service than a private entity, and 2) the private entity has to pay property taxes. If the private entity does not pay property taxes, that is corporate welfare of the worst sort. The pro-HOT lane sides say the HOT lanes will bring many new transit options which can utilize the free-flowing lanes. Why have we not seen specific transit proposals? Who is going to operate it? Metro? We see how great they operate the current system, I'm sure the new HOT bus routes will be just as good (sarcasm). Another fatal flaw in the I-95 HOT lane proposal is the fact that the lanes only operate in one direction at a time. Great, someone is telling me that I have this wonderful new option...sit in traffic or I can buy my way out of the traffic....but if I just so happen to want to buy my way out of a southbound traffic jam on a summer Sunday afternoon, I'm out of luck. Part of the appeal of the HOT lanes is lost when I don't have the option available at all times. Planners seem to have lost sight of the fact that weekend traffic on I-95 is just as bad as weekday traffic, but it exists in both directions at the same time. But the biggest problem of all...the agencies are making a false promise. THey are promising you that the lanes will be free flowing at 45 MPH. Here's another capacity example: the lanes can fit 1000 cars per hour. 600 HOV's want to use the lanes. Therefore they set the price to ensure that no more then 400 non-HOV's pay to use the lanes. But what happens when 1200 HOV's want to use the lanes? They can set the price for non-HOV's to $1,000,000 per mile to ensure that none of them actually enter the lanes, but with no method of "weeding out" 200 HOV's, the lanes will be 200 vehicles over capacity and will be jammed. So much for the 45 MPH promise. Eventually, the only way to ensure 45 MPH will be to toll carpools. Maybe it will start out as a "half toll" or something like that, but I'm confident that it will happen. At least Maryland is being up front with their Express Toll Lane proposals (they are building them on I-95 north of Baltimore right now) and telling people from Day 1 that everyone will pay the toll.

Posted by: Woodley Park | February 25, 2008 11:53 AM | Report abuse

To the "Just Move" crowd. When was looking for housing, I carefully researched ALL the comuting options including driving 95, 66 and even 270 during rush hour and also comparing driving to mass tranisit. That is how I learned about the existing SLUG system and chose Woodbridge as the best tradeoff between housing prices, commuting time etc. Now people want to change the rules after I've already made a major financial commitment. BTW, we could make the same comments regarding Metro. If you don't want to pay higher fares, just move even closer. Why don't we just have all 1.5 million people in the metro area live in 500 sf apartments 20 floors above their office. Then when the elevator is slow, the elitist self rightious snobs on the lower floors can tell people to JUST MOVE.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | February 25, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

pjolicoe: The public infrastructure is surely being robbed -- those HOT lanes are taking away right-of-way space that could have gone to public roads financed by taxpayers. Grover Norquist's poisoning of the well not withstanding, it is not true that the public is unwilling to pony up for new roads. When provided the FACTS instead of being taken for a ride, they will do the math and determine that it's in their best interests to swallow a few cents more in gas tax as VA's gas taxes are some of the lowest in the nation -- we haven't raised them since the mid-80s!

I'm not against HOT lanes actually -- I'm against private ownership of highways. This project in particular is doomed to failure. For-profit roads will only go where there is money to be made whereas the state will build roads where they are are needed even if the location is more expensive to build in. The Private Pocahantas Parkway in Richmond is underutilized, put there because it was "easy to build" but alas it's not where the cars need to go....

Posted by: HokieAnnie | February 25, 2008 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I can truthfully say that I've paid the toll for Dulles toll road at 75 cents and accepted it as reasonable use fee. However, when there is a passable alternative, why in the heck would I pay the toll. Now lets get past the 75 cents and address Maryland's ICC toll road - a projected toll of $7.00 each way per use. Thats $14.00 round-trip...and many estimate it will be much higher! Whatta scam!

If the thing is built...the tax payer picks up the tab. If the ICC is NOT built, they've already seized and cleared lots of former parkland and private property that I'm sure will end up in developer's hands.

So, who speaks for the lowly voiceless American taxpayer? At a now estimated $3.1 billion, the ICC is not a good deal for Maryland....or America (lots of federal tax dollars are going down this drain).

Posted by: Donny | February 25, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand how they will collect these tolls and at the same time manage to keep "cheaters" from using the lanes for free. If there are no toll plazas or gates how do you keep non-payers out of the lanes? And if it's true that HOV-3 users won't have to pay that just adds yet another layer of complexity. How does that get policed?

Posted by: Glenn | February 25, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Glenn, It gets policed by the police that you and I pay our taxes to fund. The VA State Police will be spending time policing the PRIVATE roadway rather than clearing accidents off of the PUBLIC roadway.

Posted by: Troy | February 25, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Troy brings up a great point. It's my understanding that the HOT lanes will get priority service over free lanes as far as clearing wrecks and weather related events (snow, etc), leaving the mass unwashed in free lanes to sit even longer...

Posted by: ecjmom | February 25, 2008 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Troy, I assume you would never call the police to protect your PRIVATE dwelling, right? If you get robbed, the police should come, but only stay in the PUBLIC street and laugh at you.

Posted by: Troy's Mom | February 25, 2008 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, the "mass unwashed" are stinking up the Metro. I couldn't care less about the cleansing habits of drivers.

Posted by: Mark | February 25, 2008 2:25 PM | Report abuse

"Troy, I assume you would never call the police to protect your PRIVATE dwelling, right? If you get robbed, the police should come, but only stay in the PUBLIC street and laugh at you."

I don't understand your comment. If a private firm wants to build a private road then they can hire private security/clean up. Why should all of us pay for the Lexus Lane drivers to get special treatment? WTF does that have to do with someone's house getting broekn into? We all pay taxes, we can all use the police services.

Posted by: to Troy's Mom | February 26, 2008 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Very cheap drugs :

Posted by: Mr. Carrot5 | March 16, 2008 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Here we go with HOT lanes, someone got paid off. Has anyone done a study on turning the Maryland HOV lanes into regular lanes? I travel the 495 & 270 route from Virginia to Maryland every workweek night and when you see the few cars using these lanes it's laughable. I can't imagine the millions of gallons a year we would all save by having access to these lanes. Now coming-up with $20 to travel HOT lanes and with gas probably in the neighborhood of $4 a gallon by summer, get serious. The majority of people are not going to carpool when working from one suburb to another, it is never going to happen the way traffic PhDs believe people will behave (they probably never use the roads during rush hour anyway!). Lexus lanes, bull. It's another opportunity for someone to make a bundle while the poor slob trying to make a go of it in life has another straw put on his/her back.

Posted by: Al | April 7, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

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