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Highway departments set on HOT lanes

VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board have made up their minds to add high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to I-395. Arlington and Alexandria, through which the lanes will pass, aren't so sure, and claim VDOT hasn't provided answers to their questions about the impact or benefits of the lanes. As a result, they are taking formal steps to oppose the plan.

Photo from Washington State Department of Transportation.

Arlington deputy manager Marsha Allgeier told the Arlington Connection, "We have not to date received a response to our request for data. We continue to be concerned about the impact this would have on our streets, and we continue to press for answers." VDOT's conduct in this case sounds very similar to the I-66 battle, where VDOT jumped to the conclusion that more lanes was the only answer, then ignored their promise to look at other possibilities.

Meanwhile, VDOT's project manager Young Ho Chang showed a typical blindness to transportation solutions other than more lanes. "Wouldn't it be better for people in the inner jurisdictions to have people in outer jurisdictions to be in a carpool or transit?" he asked. "That's what this project has been designed to encourage."

Actually, it would be better for the inner jurisdictions, the outer jurisdictions, the state as a whole, the environment and our society if Virginia's transportation policy promoted other means of mobility besides more cars driving more miles. HOT lanes might encourage more carpooling than regular lanes, but also far more driving than spending the same amount of money on transit or helping people live closer to work. Meanwhile, Virginia is still under-investing in VRE, which could potentially move a lot more people with less land, less energy, and less pollution.

There's also no real reason to believe HOT lanes will accomplish what highway boosters claim. California's SR-91 HOT lanes only ever made a profit because they replaced an existing median, which made construction extremely cheap. Beltway lanes will cost more money and bring in less. They're a better alternative to just adding lanes, period, but still cost money, increase driving and pollution, and move mobility in the wrong direction.

Maryland, too, is all hot under the collar for HOT lanes. Limited housing opportunities in western Montgomery County are pushing more people into Frederick County, and instead of adding housing closer to jobs and beefing up rail transit like the MARC line to Frederick, Maryland SHA is set on adding more car capacity to I-270 one way or another.

"We were asked to take a look at ways that we can put improvements out in the corridor, but find some way to pay for those improvements, and ETLs is what's come through from MDOT," consultant Brian Horn told the Frederick News-Post. The way he describes this makes it sound like MDOT's a sausage machine, where you put a transportation problem in one end, turn the crank, and a recommendation to widen freeways comes out the other end.

There's an alternative. We already have a rail network that could be transporting an order of magnitude more people than it does today. When discussing Berliner's suggested Red Line stop, some commenters asked about creating an express Red Line. We could have one that reaches planned new development from Gaithersburg to Fort Belvoir, and reaches Frederick, Baltimore, Richmond and Charlottesville. All we have to do is fully exploit the existing commuter rail infrastructure or even expand it further.

Building out the commuter rail system contains challenges, which would cost money, but so do new lanes on 395 and 270. Sadly, VDOT and MDOT look at the region's mobility, see a lot of traffic, and conclude that we need more lanes. In VDOT's case, they seem to see the inner jurisdictions as obstacles to clearing more room for outer jurisdictions' cars instead of as partners in a better system. The future of our region depends on some more creativity from the state transportation chiefs and their top people, or the political courage of regional leaders.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Well said,David. Both state highway departments are playing expensive foolish games.

by Cavan on May 8, 2009 1:57 pm • linkreport

I believe Ho Chang used to be the director of the Fairfax County DOT; maybe another Ho Chang?

by Transport. on May 8, 2009 2:19 pm • linkreport

Ho Chang's comment about getting more people carpooling and using transit might have had some truth with the beltway HOT lanes, since there are no HOV lanes there. But 395 already has successful HOV lanes with lots of carpools and transit. How will spending oodles of money and causing lots of construction headaches to add room for toll-paying SOVs encourage carpooling and transit use? Why not just redirect the state's share to improve the transit part? (Some well-designed bus stations along the way wouldn't be a bad thing.)

by RichardatCourthouse on May 8, 2009 2:30 pm • linkreport

It is ridiculous though because the HOV lanes are already full. Trying to squeeze another lane into it will cause headaches for everyone as all lanes on the highway will be affected by the construction. How about turning it into a busway only again? My driver who took us from Landmark mall to the inaguration drop off point was doing 90 mph because he had no cars to deal with. Everyone on the bus was remarking about if buses were able to do this everyday they'd all take the bus much more often.

I also HATE the idea that a private corporation is going to take away a road that is available to anyone in the off hours (as long as you are going in the right direction) and going to make you pay for that option. I see more crowded main lanes in the future.

by NikolasM on May 8, 2009 3:20 pm • linkreport

HOT lanes are not a solution because increasing pricing for driving will not get people out of their cars, just as reducing funding for metro will not solve our transportation problems.

Here are some suggestions for VDOT: Build metro lines along the following cooridors:

* Franconia-Springfield-Pentagon along I-395.

* Glebe Rd from Ballston to King St.

* Franconia-Springfield to Dulles along the Fairfax County Parkway, possibly with an extra piece along 123 from 7100 to the Silver Line somewhere near Reston.

* Extend the yellow line to Ft Belvoir/Lorton.

* And while you're at it, extend the blue line to Woodbridge, and then make a new line along the PW Parkway through Manassas to Leesburg, along US-15 or so.

Yes, I know, we here @ GGW hate building metro lines in the median of freeways, but here's the deal. VDOT has the right of way, so NIMBY has less of a chance. 7100 was gonna be DC's second beltway, remember? Furthermore, extending metro down to PW county, would allow VDOT to kill VRE a bit more, which they can't object to either. They love doing that. Last, building these lines will allow Arlington, Fairfax and PW county to redevelop all the suburban sprawl along these routes. I see a triple win situation. Now we only need convince Senator Boxer to ARRA us a couple of billion, and we're going!

by Jasper on May 8, 2009 3:34 pm • linkreport

The concept of HOT lanes is nothing less than an attempt to shift the burden of road building from the state treasury to drivers who use the road. But what has yet to figured out is whether these schemes will work. VDOT and a few other states certainly think so, yet it's still an open book in several respects.

Will workers continue to commute extended distances by personal vehicles to their work sites, say, 15 years from now? The current trend is turning against lengthy commutes. Will enough drivers pay the steady rising congestion tolls to make these ventures worthwhile? How will these roads and HOT lanes perform when heavy-rail transit begins to reach the outer suburbs?

With HOT lanes, however, and why they seem to be the current fad in road building is that the stakeholders aren't states and counties, but private investment. The state of Virginia is taking on little, if any, risk in its HOT lane deals. But these lanes, while considered quasi-public facilities, are nevertheless de facto private roads on which we the public will have to pay to drive on.

by InArlington on May 8, 2009 4:25 pm • linkreport

@ InArlington: But these lanes, while considered quasi-public facilities, are nevertheless de facto private roads on which we the public will have to pay to drive on.

This is actually a very important point that many underestimate. All these toll lanes will be under the "jurisdiction" of private non-democratic entities, which means that the public has no say in them anymore. Obviously, toll-road owners will NIMBY any change in the future to their cash-cow...

Hmmm, perhaps NIMBY isn't the correct term. NOMTR? Not-on-my-toll-road?

by Jasper on May 8, 2009 4:58 pm • linkreport

Let's fix the root cause - folks living too far from work. I say the best choice is either:

1. scrapping all highways for metro + bike trails and parkland

2. commuter taxes that rise as residence and office distance increases used as the only source of highway funding

Yes its fantasy for car-loving suburbanites, but a man has to dream on a Friday.

by Wayan on May 8, 2009 5:36 pm • linkreport

" 2. commuter taxes that rise as residence and office distance increases used as the only source of highway funding "

We have this already: the fuel tax. Use more, pay more.

by Douglas Willinger on May 8, 2009 7:49 pm • linkreport

Wayan, if you're going to dream, dream big.

We could eliminate the problem of long commutes by eliminating work altogether!

by ah on May 8, 2009 8:22 pm • linkreport

And an economy!

by Douglas Willinger on May 8, 2009 8:25 pm • linkreport

@ Wayan: You can not fix the living far from work if you want to embrace a family model in which both partners work. We live in an area with many highly educated folks, where one partner might work say @ NIST, and the other @ Ft Belvoir. Or one in Baltimore, and one in DC. One in Annapolis, one in DC ro Baltimore.

Neither can you have people live close to their work, if it is the city's policy to mostly build high-end apartments complexes as neighborhood "revitalization".

@ Douglas: The fuel tax is not nearly high enough to influence people's behavior. Americans think that around $4/gal is where the pain barrier is. A quick look in Europe shows that even countries with $7/gal and wonderful transit systems have horrible congestion and environmental problems.

@ah&doug: I don't mind work. I do mind the economy ... tanking.

by Jasper on May 8, 2009 9:49 pm • linkreport

@Jasper; remember that whenever you talk Metro extensions you need to also be talking about, and taking into account, expanding Metro downtown, too. A good thing to do, as are the extensions, but the one goes with the other. Also need to deal with the question of when you hit limits in Metro's capacity downtown, is the answer more tunnels downtown, or a network of surface-running bus and streetcars?

by jnb on May 9, 2009 8:40 am • linkreport

@jnb: I am all for more lines anywhere. But this article deals with the stupid HOT lanes VDOT is building. I am just suggesting a couple of easy alternatives for VDOT that they can implement on their own without help of anybody.

I would love for VDOT to start building the lines I suggested and hence push DDOT and MDOT to follow. MDOT is druling all over the HOT lanes, while it's always been Maryland that blocked building a much needed second further-out beltway. Virginia has its part ready: It's the Fairfax County Parkway. With a wide median for future metro use. And a bike path (ok, it's ugly, but it's there). It's Maryland here that doesn't want to do anything. They don't want anything west around DC over US-15, and upgrading MD-310 to interstate is also verboten.

Shockingly to some, it's conservative red Virginia that's actually leading this area in transit. Both in transit and roads. Not hip DC, and neither Maryland.

The only problem Virginia has is that "real Virginia" doesn't want to give "Yankee Virginia" its tax money back, so we can can fix our transportation problems here.

And that VDOT likes to build roads more than rail. But that's what we have GGW for.

Last, this website is called "Greater Greater Washington", not "downtown DC only". IMHO, Greater Washington is everything between Germantown, Baltimore, Bowie/Annapolis, Woodbridge/Quantico, Manassas and Leesburg.

by Jasper on May 9, 2009 3:01 pm • linkreport

InArlington wrote: With HOT lanes, however, and why they seem to be the current fad in road building is that the stakeholders aren't states and counties, but private investment.

That appears to be the case in this region, but that's not the case elsewhere. For example, tolls from the HO/T lanes on I-394 in Minneapolis help fund express bus service along the corridor, while tolls from the future HO/T lanes on I-35W in the same city will help fund BRT operations along that corridor.

by Froggie on May 10, 2009 8:05 pm • linkreport

HOT lanes are completely ridiculous. One problem, in addition to the many mentioned, is the flow issues created by all of the additional entry and exit points on the roads. In any case, the one place that actually needs additional lanes (I-66 inside the beltway) is being avoided for the same old stupid reasons.

I'd take the bus to work, but it takes longer and I have too many places to visit during the day. Once we have more pervasive videoconferencing...

by Matthew McKnight on May 15, 2009 8:58 am • linkreport

Can we even wait to see if the 495 hot lane doesnt turn into a disaster (BTW IT WILL and I will tell you why in a second) before we build I-95 an equally expensive one? For the same cost, I agree that better investments with actual returns could be made, most notably telling stafford to go find its own jobs and stop stealing ours, then blaming us for being liberals (with all the jobs btw).

VDOTs 495 Hot lanes will fail because at the end of the system they come to west park bridge, with a left turn light.

Let me tell you this much, I might not be a genius at VDOT (ha) but I can tell you one thing, regardless if the HOT lanes will be 55 mph, if you take 2 lanes of traffic and force them to make a left turn to get into their primary destination (Tysons Corner) they are gonna cause a jam. Left turns go approximately 1 car every 5 seconds per lane (and thats when there isnt a jam on the collector road). 55-65 mph on the HOT lanes means 1 car every 2 seconds per lane. The onramp bridge is approximately 2000' long of segregated loading from the rest of HOT lanes. That means it can stack about 100 cars per lane (200 cars total). Given the discrepancy of 5 seconds and 2 seconds per car, and that alot of people will be coming and going to Tysons corner

Quick queue, after 1 minute of peak operation there will be 30 cars processed through each hot lane but only 12 cars processed through the light (thats if the light is left green 100% of the time)
After 5 minutes 150 cars will be processed through each hot lane, but only 60 cars through the light (the stacking will already be 90% full with only a 5 minute peak time).
After 10 minutes 300 cars will be processed through each hot lane, but only 120 cars through the light per lane. You now have over stacked the system in any 10 minute peak (PS the time period in which we can anticipate 30 cars per minute is going to likely last 2 hours on the HOT Lanes).

So overstacking the system will now spill back into the HOT Lanes themselves. If the flow of 30 cars per minute continues for even 1 hour, you have a spill over queue into the HOT lanes themselves of approximately 5000', or 1 mile in order to be processed through the light (this is conservative assuming some people will be getting off before Tysons at Route 7 instead).

The whole project is ill-conceived and based on the geniuses in California who brought us urban freeways in the first place (way to go). Day 1 when the tolls turn on, Transurban will have met their contract requirement, the road itself will flow at 55 mph, unfortunately getting off the road will screech to a halt and no one in their right mind will pay 10 dollars each way to have a 15 minute wait at a light at the end of it.

by Tysons Engineer on May 15, 2012 3:40 pm • linkreport

When there was a chance for initial public comment on this, I lived in Fredericksburg and commuted to Arlington. I said that if HOT lanes in on 95, I would quit commuting. Now I live in North Carolina. Just in time!

I wonder if anyone thought I was kidding.

by TRH on Oct 29, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

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