Out of Control Policy Blog

How to ruin a good thing

Converting HOV lanes to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes could finally bring some congestion relief to our nation's cities. But some politicians seem determined to ruin roadway pricing.

In this LA Times oped, Reason's Bob Poole explains what's wrong with a bill that's now before the California Legislature that would allow those driving hybrid cars to use carpool lanes even if they're driving alone:

Carpool lanes – formally called high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes – were put in place to ease traffic congestion and to improve the efficiency of our freeways. So the first problem with allowing hybrids into HOV lanes is that these additional vehicles will soon use up the carpool lanes' capacity, making them nearly as congested as the regular lanes.

Proponents, such as Jeff Morales, former director of Caltrans, try to reassure us by noting that over the next 15 years, hybrids will make up, at most, 2% of the vehicle fleet.

But 2% of the 29 million vehicles already on our roads would be 580,000 vehicles. If even half of those hybrids tried to use the HOV lanes at rush hour, the lanes would be swamped. It is predicted by the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission that by 2010, seven of the region's 18 HOV corridors will be at capacity, and by 2025 nearly all of them will be congested.

It is true that the measure pending before the Legislature would expire in 2008, but by that time driving in the carpool lane will have become an entitlement for the 50,000 to 70,000 hybrid owners in the state. It probably would prove difficult to prevent the law's extension. The larger the entitled group becomes, the harder it will be to alter the law.

Also, letting in thousands of hybrid cars probably would create an enforcement nightmare for the California Highway Patrol. Today, a Prius is instantly recognizable as a hybrid. But the hybrids due out in 2005, 2006 and 2007 model years will be identical in appearance to ordinary cars; it's just an engine option, not a different body style. They would be identified as authorized HOV-lane users only by a small decal.

Once drivers of the nonhybrid versions of these same models catch on, many of them will take their chances in the HOV lanes.

And the implications go far beyond congestion in the HOV lanes and law enforcement. In their original incarnation, HOV lanes were intended to be used for express bus service. Adding congestion to the HOV lanes would destroy the attraction of using regional express bus service – a way to move people quickly and more affordably than building rail lines or other forms of mass transit.

And here Poole notes the same problem at the federal level:

Surprisingly for a bill that emerged from a Republican-majority committee, HR 3550 is full of social engineering provisions, a few of which also appear in S 1072. Both bills make it easier to convert car-pool (HOV) lanes to priced, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. But both also would allow states to let "low emission and energy-efficient vehicles" into HOV lanes.

Poole also reports on attempts to allow low income motorists to pay reduced tolls–even though data from real HOT lanes projects show that people from all income levels will gladly pay a toll for a faster commute.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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