More toll lanes could be coming to the region’s roads

Ultimately, pilot error and improper de-icing of the jet\'s wings were pegged as the causes of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the 14th Street Bridge. (Photo courtesy nsf.gov)

WASHINGTON — As the region makes a list of projects it hopes will become reality in the next decades, a conversation is beginning about adding toll lanes into Washington and elsewhere as well.

Among the many projects added to the National Capital Region’s Financially Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan is $5.9 million to study whether high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes would work in the District of Columbia.

According to the plan, DDOT is looking at potential tolls on the 14th Street Bridge, Southeast/Southwest Freeway and D.C. 295 from the 11th Street Bridge to the Maryland line.

“The first study will look at converting the two northbound lanes on the 14th Street/Rochambeau Bridge to High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV 3+) laes during the morning peak period on weekdays and the two southbound lanes on the same facility to HOV 3+ during the evening peak period on weekdays, to mirror existing HOV operations in Virginia,” the plan says. “The existing four northbound lanes on the Arland Williams, Jr. Bridge and four southbound lanes on the George Mason Memorial Bridge would remain as general purpose lanes. The study will also consider a subsequent conversion of the HOV lanes into High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes.”

A similar HOV-to-HOT lanes process could happen on the other corridors as well.

“We’ve got about 450,000 people that come into the city. Many of them drive by themselves. And if there’s a way to encourage people to have two, three, four or five people in their car, it’ll be better for our city,” says DC Council Member Tommy Wells.

DDOT hopes to change the existing HOV lanes on the Rochambeau Bridge to HOT Lanes by March 2015. DDOT would not have to go through the same environmental process to do this as it would on the Southeast-Southwest Freeway or DC 295 because it would be a rule change, not a project that would require any construction. Environmental studies, known as a NEPA for the National Environmental Protection Act compliance, could take several years to complete.

While no study has begun, it appears likely that any HOT Lanes in the District would mimic the current rules on the I-495 and soon-to-open I-95 Express Lanes, which allow HOV drivers to use the toll lanes for free.

But the Coalition for Smarter Growth hopes any DDOT study would leave open other possibilities like mass transit. The group believes improvements to the Yellow Line, VRE or Amtrak could make trips from Northern Virginia into D.C. easier.

“The key thing to think about is that even if you are able to improve rush-hour movement because of HOT Lanes, the single occupant or even the carpool vehicles still have to drive on D.C. streets. The ultimate constraint is the capacity of DC streets,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Others, such as AAA Mid-Atlantic, believe HOT Lanes would help solve a lot of problems.

“It will solve insolvable gridlock on the 14th Street Bridge, but the cost of doing that is leaving some people behind,” says John Townsend, manager of government and public affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic.

However, there is a big hurdle between commuters and a seamless trip.

When the I-95 Express Lanes open in Northern Virginia next year, they will run from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to just north of Edsall Road in Alexandria. That leaves a 10-mile stretch, from Turkeycock Run to the 14th Street Bridge, where only HOV drivers will remain in the faster lanes. Drivers without three people in their car will have to exit and rejoin the congested main lanes.

Arlington residents sued VDOT in 2009 to stop the I-95 Express Lanes from continuing all the way to the 14th Street Bridge.

Toll lanes are the future

From the Intercounty Connector to the Dulles Toll Road and the Greenway, toll roads and toll lanes are being more common.

That’s because governments are unwilling to raise taxes to build new lanes or new highways. Higher gas taxes in Maryland and Virginia are mostly being spent on fixing or improving current roads rather than adding anything new, other than interchanges. Governments are opting for user fees, so people who use the roads help pay off the debts to build them.

“I think it’s convergence,” Wells says. “On one side, you have the public goal of getting people to carpool. Instead of having four cars driving into the city, have four people in one car. That has been paired up with the more conservative idea of user fees rather than taxes. The idea of user fees is what the tolls function as, to pay for the infrastructure itself.”

Townsend says he expects many more HOT Lanes across the region over the next 20 to 25 years. He thinks toll lanes are the popular tool for legislators to fix congestion without taxing every constituent.

“It’s leaving some people behind. That should trouble all of us. There should be a better solution, but it’s the best solution we have. Of all the cards on the table, it is the best card. But we’ve been dealt a terrible hand,” says Townsend.

Others believe that as the region grows, transportation planners are running out of room. No money plus no room equals a need for creative solutions.

“We’ve grown so much. We will continue to grow as employment will increase 40 percent in the coming decades. But in some areas, we are running up against the constraints to add new capacity in a cost-effective manner. HOT Lanes are a tool that is much more effective to encourage carpooling and buses that increase the capacity,” says Hari Sripathi, regional operations director at VDOT.

Robert Griffiths, of the Transportation Planning Board, agrees. He says that building new lanes, or even a brand new highway, is too expensive and the money just isn’t there.

“The cost of maintaining our existing system is consuming 80 to 90 percent of all our transportation revenue, so there is little money for any expansion on highways or transit systems. The only way to provide that new capacity in Maryland and Virginia is to go to some type of tolling for drivers. The question is how to move more people with limited money, while providing drivers an option to bypass all the traffic when they need to,” says Griffiths.

While critics call them Lexus Lanes because they say the tolls favor the rich, it appears more of these projects will occur in the future. The biggest case study could be on I-66, where VDOT is studying toll lanes as a way to ease congestion from the Capital Beltway to US Route 15 in Prince William County.

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