They don't have the money

Jan. 3, 2018

New HOT lanes on Va.’s I-66 under scrutiny

I made calls from a pay phone, but the change did not come from the seat cracks of my Swagger Wagon.

That would have been a feat, but still would not have impressed my 12-year-old son. I always tell him how rough I had it as a child, like the fact seatbelts were optional and every once in a while you had no choice but to expose your ear to the layer of nastiness of a public phone. A common reaction from him is, “Really?” It does not go further than that. So the fact I drive a Swagger Wagon (Google it, but it is also known as a Toyota Sienna), does little to spike the excitement pulse from my firstborn. He is always telling me the steering wheel I need to be behind: a Mercedes Benz, an Audi, a Suburban with tricked-out rims, an Escalade . . . the list is endless. He’s 12, so the idea of practical trumping a vehicle fit for a car-jacking is impossible.

He’s a Lexus Laner: One who would have no problem paying loaves of cash to ride solo in a HOT lane. Oh, I’m sure he will object one day, but the part of the brain that makes up fiscal conservatism has obviously not formed yet. Lexus Lanes (a term created a few years ago describing the high price of congestion-relieving lanes) were in their splendor on Virginia’s I-66 in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Billed as one of the heaviest traffic holders in the region, officials have known for years something needed to be done, and they done did it. In early December, the cost to run the 10-mile route between the Capital Beltway and D.C. was as much as $40 for single occupants, but free for anyone who carpooled. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) also expanded its tolling hours from 6:30-9 a.m. to 5:30-9:30 a.m. and 3-7 p.m.

Naturally, most of those not named Aidan were shocked and opposed to paying the price. Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer wanted VDOT to go in a slightly different route, too, and introduced a resolution to cap the tolls on I-66. Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne thought all the hyperventilating was premature.

An algorithm controls the pricing on I-66, and VDOT was convinced after the opening weeks the cost for single riders would go down and peace would be restored, if not just reconfigured. The whole point of traffic demand management is to actually remove people from the equation. More people need to carpool and more need to take alternative forms of transportation. VDOT is forcing the issue, and it is working. In early December, the average speed during commutes on I-66 in the 10-mile HOT zone was 54-57 mph. One option VDOT could consider is lowering the target speed from 55 mph to 50 mph or even 45 mph, which would lower tolls, but the agency is not considering scraping what is already in place. Traffic on alternative routes also has been mainly unaffected.

In an area like northern Virginia, where transit lines reach all four corners of the region and accommodating interstates are plentiful, the HOT lanes concept truly does work, and I think it will thrive on I-66. This example could be the trigger for future HOT lane systems all over the country, but the conditions have to be almost perfect. Fog, however, tends to form when politicians are involved. What is working in Virginia may not work in Illinois, Texas, Florida or California. Sometimes you have to deal with what you had decades ago.

About The Author: Wilson is editorial director of Roads & Bridges.

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