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Corporate welfare and the Beltway HOT lanes, part 2: You better not carpool (too much)

Most press coverage of the Beltway HOT lanes has either touted the lanes or noted the high planned toll rates, up to $1 per mile. Project proponents counter the toll outrage by pointing out that commuters can carpool on the lanes for "free." The correct term, however, should be taxpayer subsidized. The state have to pay Fluor-Transurban for each carpooling vehicle if HOV use exceeds 24% of total vehicles.

Photo by Sweet One.

From the agreement:

(b) The Department agrees to pay the Concessionaire, subject to Section 20.18, amounts equal to 70% of the Average Toll applicable to vehicles paying tolls for the number of High Occupancy Vehicles exceeding a threshold of 24% of the total flow of all Permitted Vehicles that are then using such Toll Section going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day, and any additional 15 consecutive minute periods in such day, during which average traffic for a Toll Section going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour based on two lanes.
Based on the contract, state taxpayers suffer if our effort to rideshare is too successful. But just how much will we need to share in order to be punished? To use the existing I-395 HOV3 as a gauge, VDOT counted 30,000 cars per day in each direction. Assuming that on an average day most of those carpools drive within a 6 hour window, 395 would have 5,000 HOV3 vehicles per hour.

If we estimate that Tysons HOV3 use will be half as successful as I-395 is now, we could conservatively assume 2,500 HOV3 cars per hour in each direction. During peak times, this could well encompass more than 50% of the cars in the lanes. Fluor could charge taxpayers for half the carpool vehicles at the going rate, adding up to tens of millions of dollars per year.

This penalty doesn't apply if Fluor-Transurban makes a 12.98% profit, but the more drivers carpool, the less likely it is they will make that profit.

As for buses, it remains unclear from the agreement whether or not they will cost the same as a car, or more. In Section 4.04:

(iv) The toll rates shall be the same for persons using the HOT Lanes under like conditions, and for this purpose "like conditions" may take into consideration type, weight and occupancy of the vehicle, number of axles, time-of-day and/or day-of-week travel, time and location of entry to the HOT Lanes, traffic congestion and other traffic conditions (provided, that the Concessionaire may adopt and implement discount programs for different classes or groups of persons using the HOT Lanes under like conditions, subject to the provisions of Section 11.01; and, provided further, that it is understood that, with dynamic tolling vehicles traveling on the same Toll Section of the HOT Lanes at the same time may be subject to different toll rates);
Buses weigh more and have more axles. If this provision allows for buses to be charged at higher rates, then bus trips could cost even more.

Ultimately, under this contract, if Virginia is too successful in reducing carbon footprint and traffic, or invests enough in express bus service, its taxpayers will instead be punished.

Steve Kattula is an architecture graduate student at Virginia Tech in Old Town Alexandria, and lives and works in Fairfax City. 


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Hmmm. Very confusing. Are we now using republican arguments (no subsidies, carbon taxation is bad) against them?

by Jasper on Nov 11, 2009 11:44 am • linkreport

At least part of that "punishment" is self-inflicted. Had Virginia taxpayers (or their representatives in Richmond)approved a publicly financed transportation plan at any point in the past decade there would be less need for a profit-driven private-public partnership to finance and generate revenue from these transportation projects.

by Nate on Nov 11, 2009 12:17 pm • linkreport

I agree Nate. Handing over the public domain in this fashion with all these convoluted details wouldn't be necessary if the state gov't and voters agreed on a way to finance more transportation publically so only for smaller projects private partnerships would be sought.

I think a lot of people are in for a surprise when they're getting gouged with the construction of these HOT lanes.

by Vik on Nov 11, 2009 1:31 pm • linkreport

it's just another argument against privatization in all its forms. the incentives have to be correct, and if not, like in the privatized health care we have, everyone lives in misery.

by Peter Smith on Nov 12, 2009 1:48 am • linkreport

I wonder to what degree carpooling is actually encouraged by subsidized use of the HOT lanes. I assume the reason it's fully subsidized for carpooling is to encourage that use. Arguably we should be encouraging the highest carpool share possible, not punishing success.

Perhaps we need a nudge here - make carpooling the default subsidized use of the beltway (say, the first lane) and make single-occupant vehicles pay to use the remaining lanes. The lanes could become progressively more expensive, with the third lane being more expensive than the second lane. It also makes sense to me that motorcycles and scooters should be subsidized, due to the comparatively lower axle weight, use of fuel, and space. Why not put a motorcycle lane before the first car lane on highways - wouldn't this encourage more people to use them?

Carpoolers are still getting a discount in practice even if carpool cars pay full price, because you divide the cost of the car toll by the the number of people riding in the car. We're tolling cars, not people. I don't know about buses, but heavy trucks should absolutely pay more because road wear increases exponentially with axle weight - a tractor trailer does a thousand times or more damage than a light car. Perhaps the toll should be based on vehicle weight?

by Lee Watkins on Nov 12, 2009 7:43 am • linkreport

A little off-topic, but check this out:

I was wondering what the deal was with the "No Carpooling" sign in the photo, and found out that in Ontario, carpooling was ILLEGAL in the province under all but the most strict conditions. Basically, a carpool is governed by the same rules as a commercial bus service, requiring permits for drivers, to cross municipal boundaries, etc. A rideshare site was even fined by the government after a complaint from a bus company. Fortunately it looks like they came to their senses and revised the law. Crazy!

by Chris on Nov 12, 2009 9:53 am • linkreport

Lee - I hope my explanation was not confusing. I was trying to focus on the "bad contract" aspect of this project. I think what is important is the subsidy is there to ensure the profit of a large corporation - not to encourage or discourage car-pooling one way or the other.

As far as the operation of the lanes, that is a whole 'nother confusing ball-of-wax - from reading the contract it appears the system to use the car-polling transponder will be quite complicated.

What is important to learn from the beltway HOT lanes (which sets a precedent for HOT lanes construction all around the region) is that citizens need to be EVEN MORE INVOLVED in this type of complex deal than they do in similarly large regional "megaprojects". When a project of this scope is public, whether it is city planning like the Tysons Plan or the Wilson Bridge, or the Silver Line, citizen involvement has been quite high and quite good design solutions were reached due to the transparent nature of the cost / effect on lives. But the black box like nature of this project discouraged community involvement, resulting in a bad contract.

Private hands in what has traditionally been the public rhelm is a HUGE problem for Democracy. Military Industrial Complex blah blah blah... Infrastructure Industrial Complex...

by stevek_fairfax on Nov 12, 2009 9:54 am • linkreport

The Commonwealth of VA is lining up HOT lanes "public-private" financing projects all over the state now, and Maryland is talking of following VA. The problem is, anyone with common sense can tell you they are not a design solution - the very nature of them depends on more than half the road being traffic clogged, or some type of taxpayer safety net. They are designed to be profit machines for corporations at the expense of citizen mobility.

AS for other states copying, if Erlich runs in Maryland next election, he will most likely point at VA and say "look at them, they are building all these highways for cheap"...and this makes for a great soundbite. Especially with the cost runups for the Connector (which closer reflect the true cost of the HOT lanes project), many will clamor for Private/Public MD Beltway HOT Lanes, 270-lanes, and Baltimore Beltway lanes, etc. Especially the corporations who are busy lobbying MD state politicians right now.

Gov Rendell said on Meet the Press last week that many governors support a second "infrastructure only" stimulus....if this happens, the wolves are at the gates.

by stevek_fairfax on Nov 12, 2009 10:09 am • linkreport

I had heard that earlier versions of the HOT lanes agreement carried a prohibition of building any rail line paralleling the beltway. Is this still in the agreement? If so, it makes this project even more odious.

by Glenat FC on Nov 12, 2009 11:04 am • linkreport

I wrote to the state DOT director about this earlier this year the last time it was reported (can't remember if it was GGW or some other site). He wrote back and categorically denied that these provisions were in the draft contract. I'll have to look up that email.....

by Josh S on Nov 12, 2009 11:12 am • linkreport

I fear the real danger here is that states are pushing through these HOT road projects and have a much easier time brushing off opposition to them because supposedly a private company is paying for it. Ugh.

by NikolasM on Nov 12, 2009 11:40 am • linkreport

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