HOT to Trot

HOT lanes would provide time-sensitive Virginians an alternative to congestion

Recently Prince William Board of County Supervisors Corey Stewart called High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes “a sham.” Seems Stewart and his colleagues on the Prince William Board of Supervisors would rather see commuters stuck in traffic than give them an option to spend more time with friends and families at home.

HOT lanes have successfully relieved congestion everywhere they’ve been implemented. They’ve been so successful that they’re supported from the political left and right alike, from environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund to local business associations.

If you’re unfamiliar with HOT lanes, they use variable pricing to mitigate congestion and ensure a free flow of traffic. As demand goes up so does the toll; likewise, the price goes down with a drop in demand.

The ability to adjust prices enables the operator to manage the flow of traffic dynamically and keep the lanes relatively free of congestion, even at the height of rush hour.

Southern California, home to the country’s worst gridlock, has had great success with HOT lanes. On Orange County’s 91 Express Lanes, drivers pay a variable toll that goes up during rush hours, in exchange for access to a lane that is guaranteed to be moving at 65 miles per hour. If the average speed is less, commuters see their toll refunded.

HOT lanes operating in Houston, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Denver and San Diego show that variable pricing works. By using a price to discourage some people from traveling in peak hours, HOT lanes actually provide more mobility. A free-flowing highway lane has much greater throughput per hour than a congested lane – about 50 percent more. Orange County’s HOT Lanes account for just one-third of the highway’s lanes but carry half of all rush-hour traffic.

Buses and carpools of three or more people would continue to ride free, while others could choose to pay a toll upwards of $1 a mile to use congestion free lanes. At that price, a 21-mile, rush-hour trip from the Pentagon to Prince William Parkway would cost as much as $22.28 – one of the most expensive commutes in the country.

While too expensive for many, HOT lanes will find users. With a peak rate of $9.25 for a 10-mile ride California’s SR-91 had more than 12 million users.

HOT lanes give every motorist “congestion insurance,” an alternative to gridlocked freeways for those times when they really need it – if you’re willing to pay a premium.

Opponents, including Chairman Stewart argue “that only the very affluent will be in those lanes.” The reality based on experience and data proves him wrong. People of all incomes levels use HOT lanes, but very few people use them every day.

Over a decade of data available from the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County and the HOT lanes on I-15 in San Diego indicate that the vast majority of drivers – high and low income – use the HOT lanes only occasionally, not daily.

While studies of the 91 Express Lanes indicate that use increases slightly with income group, 20 percent of the users are from the lowest income group, and another 23 percent are from the second-lowest income group.

In 2005 there were more than 12 million trips on the 91 Express Lanes, with most people using the lanes as congestion insurance. When people have to pick up their kids at day care, they know the toll is less than the late fees. When they have to make a flight or get to a child’s soccer game, they know they have a traffic-free alternative.

The lowest income users are least able to afford these costs of congestion, and studies show they welcome the choice.

In addition, Stewart’s line of argument ignores how HOT lanes benefit all commuters. For every car that chooses to use HOT lanes, one less car is using the “free” lanes, improving traffic flow on those lanes as well.

Planners also see HOT lanes as a way to boost transit service by providing open roads for buses. Indeed, the HOT lanes being added to the Katy Freeway in Houston guarantee transit 25 percent of the capacity. Tolls from solo users help pay for the transit operations (as well as local road improvements).

Bottom line, HOT lanes work. They improve mobility, give commuters an opportunity to escape congestion, and improve transit operations. Our freeways don’t have to resemble parking lots. HOT lanes will be a vital piece in our war against congestion.