Out of Control Policy Blog

Congestion Down in Northern Virgina for Now.....Solution Will be HOT Lanes

The Washington Post reports on a recent study of the Washington, D.C. area that analyzed 80,000 aerial photographs taken during morning and evening rush hours. The study was examining the impact of the economic downturn on traffic. It surveyed the region's 300-mile freeway system, including major interstates such as the Beltway (Interstate 495), but not smaller roads. From the Post article:

Traffic had dropped 3.1 percent from 2005, including a sharp reduction in congestion in several choke points in the area. It was the first time the number of miles traveled declined in the past 15 years the study has been conducted.

Even more striking than the decrease in vehicle miles traveled was the drop in the amount of congestion measured during the morning and afternoon rushes. The report found congestion during those three-hour peak travel times declined 24 percent, to levels not seen since 2002.

Motorists have been driving less across the country, but declines in Virginia, Maryland, and the District were particularly sharp. Motorists in the region drove a total of 600 million fewer miles in November 2008 than a year earlier, according to the American Automobile Association.

"This really shows how a marginal shift in people getting out of their cars can have a huge impact on traffic congestion," said Arlington Council Board Member Chris Zimmerman (D), in response to the report. Zimmerman also sits on the COG board.

As the economy recovers, so will congestion.

This recent study demonstrates how a small amount of traffic reduction (3.1%) has a significant impact on reducing congestion. Virginia has two important projects that will help relieve congestion as the economy recovers: The High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the Capital Beltway and the I-95/395 HOT lane project from the Pentagon heading South towards Richmond.

I have written before about how these projects will bring congestion relief to Northern Virginia. The HOT lanes will operate alongside the existing free lanes. Carpools with three or more people in the car (HOV 3), van pools, buses, and motorcycles will travel for free on the HOT lanes. Drivers traveling alone or with only one other person have a choice: They can stay in the existing free lanes or pay a toll to travel faster in the HOT lanes. Tolls are based on real-time traffic conditions. When traffic is heaviest, tolls are the highest. This variable pricing (also known as congestion pricing) limits the number of vehicles entering the HOT lanes, in order to keep cars from free-flowing at the maximum speed allowed. The EZ Pass toll system allows drivers to pay tolls and enter the toll lanes without slowing down; there will be no toll booths.

It is clear from this recent study that a shift in a small amount of traffic will have a significant impact on reducing congestion. HOT lanes can accomplish this goal, even as the economy rebounds.

Shirley Ybarra is Senior Transportation Policy Analyst


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