By Katherine Shaver
Transportation experts Robert W. Poole and C. Kenneth Orski
have spent the past decade touting a plan to ease traffic
in crowded urban areas such as Washington: Charge lone motorists
a toll for the chance to use leftover space in free-flowing
While the idea took hold in some traffic-clogged areas of
California and Texas, it stalled in the Washington region.
The politically powerful AAA dubbed such toll lanes "Lexus
lanes," that favor more affluent motorists. Former Maryland
governor Parris N. Glendening (D) canceled the region's only
study of such lanes in 2001 after calling them economically
unfair. Virginia transportation officials showed little interest.
But in the past six months, the idea of high-occupancy toll,
or HOT, lanes has gained traction faster than almost any other
traffic congestion-fighting measure. The details of how to
create them -- and how to spend the toll money still
stir debate. However, with money tight and traffic growing
worse, HOT lanes are now widely viewed as one of the most
feasible, affordable ways to better manage, if not ease, traffic
congestion in the short term while generating money for long-term
"We are out of money in our transportation trust funds
throughout our region," said Lon Anderson, spokesman
for the Mid-Atlantic AAA and one of the most vocal critics
of HOT lanes just a year ago. "There's no money to make
the wholesale changes many would like to see. HOT lanes offer
Maryland has renewed its studies of HOT lanes on six highways,
including its portion of the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270
in Montgomery County and Route 50 in Prince George's County.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is considering the
idea as a way to pay for widening the Beltway through Northern
Virginia in addition to adding and extending carpool lanes
on I-95 between Springfield and Fredericksburg. At a regional
conference on HOT lanes in June, politicians and traffic planners
were practically giddy about what many called their only financial
hope of making major road or transit improvements.
Building new HOT lanes would take at least five years
as long as it would take to build any new road. However, charging
tolls to use excess capacity in existing carpool lanes, such
as on I-270, Route 50 and I-66, could offer relief in as little
as a year, Orski said.
"If there's a will to do so," said Orski, a transportation
consultant who lives in Potomac, "it could be done in
the next six months."
Here's how HOT lanes work: The carpool lanes remain free to
carpools, van pools and buses, while other motorists pay a
toll. The tolls are collected via electronic transponders,
akin to Maryland's E-Z Pass and Virginia's Smart Tag, to prevent
tollbooths from slowing or stopping traffic. To make sure
the lanes don't fill up with cheaters, effective HOT lanes
have room built in for police to ensure that vehicles have
What makes HOT lanes most effective: The toll's price changes
throughout the day to keep traffic moving, even during rush
hours. When the lanes start to bog down, the price goes up
to encourage motorists to leave the lanes or discourage them
from entering. As road space frees up, the price drops. The
fluctuating prices not only keep traffic moving, advocates
say, but also stretch the highway's capacity by encouraging
drivers to use it outside peak times.
HOT-lane advocates also tout the long-term potential for
such lanes to improve transit. If a network of HOT lanes could
be developed long term to connect free-flowing toll lanes
on several major highways, it could form a seamless web for
express bus service.
HOT lanes won't stem the ever-rising tide of traffic fueled
by the Washington region's population and job growth. But
charging for the region's road space could at least ensure
that the precious capacity that is available is used most
efficiently. It also would give people the option of paying
a few dollars for something they can't otherwise get: a reliably
smooth trip when they have to be on time.
"I think there's a convergence of thinking that congestion
will always be a part of Northern Virginia, so at least it
has to be better managed," said Pierce R. Homer, deputy
transportation secretary in Virginia and chairman of a panel
considering HOT lanes as a way to pay for widening the Beltway.
"Part of managing congestion is providing choices, and
that's something that HOT lanes do."
An old idea
The idea of "road pricing," or charging motorists
for using limited road space, has been around since the 1960s,
said Poole, founder of the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles
think tank that applies market-based approaches to reforming
government. However, Poole said, it was considered political
suicide to begin charging motorists for something they were
used to getting for free.
In 1988, Poole wrote an academic paper suggesting that motorists
be charged for the chance to use newly built "premium-priced"
lanes based on the idea that people were accustomed to paying
for premium service at peak times.
New road capacity could be priced the same way that phone
companies charged customers more for making long-distance
calls during peak daytime hours than for calls made on nights
and weekends. Instead of having to build a massive infrastructure
just to meet peak demand, phone companies used pricing to
even out the demand and shift it to better match the supply.