Traffic congestion in Northern Virginia is the second worst in the country, and infrastructure improvements are long overdue. The enactment of the Public-Private Transportation Act in 1995 enabled Virginia's Department of Transportation (VDOT) to partner with private investors in order to improve infrastructure. Public-private partnerships can enable VDOT to improve infrastructure sooner than if they relied on their shrinking budget alone. Thanks to this private investment, construction is already taking place on the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that will bring much needed congestion relief to the Capital Beltway and the I-95/395 corridor. While the construction will make it challenging to get around in the short term, the result will be the biggest improvement to the Northern Virginia transportation system in decades.
What are HOT lanes?
HOT lanes operate right beside existing highway lanes and offer users a much faster trip. Carpools with three or more people in the car (HOV 3), van pools, buses and motorcycles travel for free on the HOT lanes. Drivers traveling alone or with only one other person have a choice: They can stay in the existing free lanes or pay a toll to travel faster in the HOT lanes. Tolls are based on real time traffic conditions. When traffic is heaviest the tolls are the highest. This variable toll pricing (also known as congestion pricing) limits the number of vehicles entering the HOT lanes, to keep them free flowing at the maximum speed allowed. The EZ Pass toll system allows drivers to pay tolls and enter the lanes without slowing down; there will be no toll booths.
Based on experience in other states, most drivers do not use the toll lanes every day. They use the HOT lanes when they need a faster or more reliable travel time - to pick the kids up at daycare, make a meeting, or catch a flight, for example. Research on Southern California's 91 Express Lanes, the first HOT lanes in the US, shows that more than 30 percent of the drivers from households earning $40,000 a year use the HOT lanes occasionally.
Two Virginia Projects that will make a difference
The Beltway HOT lane project will add two HOT lanes in each direction on the 13 mile Beltway in Virginia. In addition, over 50 bridges and overpasses will be replaced; two new interchanges will be added, and bike lanes will be installed adjacent to the Beltway. Construction is underway on this project. Upon completion, drivers will have the option of using the HOT lanes or using the existing lanes. In addition, commuters will also have the option of taking a bus because the added capacity of the HOT lanes and free-flowing traffic will allow buses to operate on fast, reliable schedules - possibly luring people out of their cars.
The second project, the I-95/395 HOT lanes project, is currently under development and negotiation between VDOT and the private sector. This project will expand existing carpool lanes from two to three lanes, and extend them 28 miles south from Arlington county to Spotsylvania county, creating 56-miles of HOV lanes from Arlington to Spotsylvania counties. Vehicles carrying three or more people, motorcycles, buses and emergency vehicles will be able to use the HOT lanes free of charge, while others can choose to use them for a congestion-based toll, as on the Beltway.
Certain types of carpoolers, called "slugs," are concerned about the new HOT lanes in the I-95/395 corridor. Slugs are people who leave their cars in park-and-ride lots and stand in line to join others to create a carpool that can drive in the HOV3 lanes. Some slugs worry that the addition of the HOT lanes will interrupt their unique system of carpooling. My view is quite to the contrary. If anything, the HOT lanes will expand the population of sluggers.
As currently envisioned, the project will add 6,700 new parking spaces to the park-and-ride lots. As more parking spaces are added, there will be more opportunities for sluggers to park their own cars and create a carpool. Right now, slugging typically occurs only on the commute to the Pentagon and into and out of DC. The combined projects will add more locations for slugging; as a result, we may see sluggers on their way to the Tyson's Corner area and certainly to the new Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) locations along the I-95/395 corridor.
These HOT lanes projects will result in much needed congestion relief in Northern Virginia. The slugs should embrace these improvements rather than fearing any changes. The concerns of the sluggers are being taken seriously by the private sector and VDOT as they add park and ride lots, additional spaces and BRAC entrances and exits for the HOT lanes. And most importantly, whatever the slugs think, the large-scale congestion relief these new lanes will bring to Northern Virginia should be welcomed by all.