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Reason Foundation

Washington Examiner

Converting Carpool Lanes to Toll Lanes Will Reduce Congestion in DC and Virginia

Tolls will also help generate revenue to pay for much-needed projects that won't be built otherwise

Robert Poole and Shirley Ybarra
August 12, 2009

Los Angeles drivers may have the lead in wasted hours in traffic, according to a new study, but Beltway drivers are coming in a close second. 62 hours a year are lost on the roads around Washington, and plans to get them back are meeting a lot of opposition.

The Texas Transportation Institute says these delays cost each metro driver $1,200 a year. Several projects are underway to alleviate this gridlock, but one -- the plan to convert the I-95/395 carpool lanes into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes -- is catching a lot of misdirected grief.

The region's carpool lanes are already clogged and can only get worse. In 10 years, 64,000 new jobs are expected to arrive thanks to the Base Realignment and Closure plan in which Andrews Air Force Base and Fort Meade will add new personnel and more missions. The number of agitated drivers will increase as well.

The toll lanes would reduce congestion in regular lanes and improve bus service. Meanwhile, tolls would generate enough money to pay for an additional lane and to extend the HOT lanes 28 miles to Spotsylvania County.

Cities across the country -- Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, Denver, Minneapolis, and San Diego -- are converting carpool lanes to HOT lanes to cut congestion and generate funding for transportation projects that otherwise couldn't be afforded.

In San Diego and Houston, where HOT lanes have been in operation for over a decade, they are very popular. Commuters of all income levels use the lanes.

Most people use them occasionally, like when they have to get to the airport or an important appointment. Parents often choose HOT lanes because the tolls are less than daycare late-fees. The free-flowing toll lanes also make bus service more reliable and let emergency vehicles reduce response times and save lives.

Today, you can forget it if you need to get somewhere quickly during rush hour. Which is why toll lanes provide a valuable service.

Toll lanes offer "congestion insurance." They ensure you can get somewhere on time when it really matters.

You won't need it every day, but you're glad it's there when you do. And you only pay when you use the lanes.

Claims that the lanes will cost drivers $32,000 a year are ridiculous. Who will drive 64 miles in the toll lanes every day? The typical driver's trip is expected to cost $7 to $9. That's expensive enough that most people won't use them every day.

But that's the point. When you need to be somewhere on time and $7 will land you a better job, a new client, or get you to your kid's soccer game, it's worth it.

There are also worries that when the I-95/395 HOV lanes are expanded to three lanes, they won't be safe. The lanes will be 11 feet wide, just like lanes in Los Angeles. There will be a 12-foot shoulder and emergency pull-off areas. Transportation engineers are quite comfortable with this.

Then there are concerns about a foreign company managing the project. Bottom line: The project will create jobs in DC-Virginia. Foreign companies can't pick up the pavement and move it to Australia.

The project is self-supporting and the additional toll lane will add 50 percent more capacity without taking any homes via eminent domain. In this time of massive deficits, the region should embrace a transportation project that pays for itself.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation, where he has advised the previous four presidential administrations. Shirley Ybarra is senior policy analyst at Reason and former Secretary of Transportation for Virginia. This column first appeared in the DC Examiner.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy

Shirley Ybarra is Senior Transportation Policy Analyst


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