Posts about HOT Lanes
Are highway toll lanes a great way to provide rapid bus service all over the region, or a sneaky way to widen roads under the auspices of improving transit?
Planners at the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) are currently preparing a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan. It will be a sort of wish list of transportation projects and strategies the DC region may want to consider funding some time in the future.
One interesting concept they propose is to widen nearly every highway in the region with a new set of variably-priced toll lanes, like the express lanes that recently opened on the Beltway in Virginia.
The idea is that tolls would be set high enough to ensure traffic on the lanes moves quickly, which would simultaneously improve car congestion and provide all the benefits of a dedicated busway. Sounds great, except it never works that way in real life.
Why this won't work as promised
There are two big problems with this approach.
First, transit is most effective when it's located along dense, mixed-use corridors, where riders can walk to their destination on at least one end of the route. Highways never work very well, because the land use surrounding highways is inevitably spread out and car-oriented nearly all the time.
Even Metrorail stations in the most prosperous parts of the region have trouble attracting development if they're in a highway median.
And without surface bus lanes on downtown streets, highway buses will get clogged in downtown traffic just like cars.
That's not to say highways shouldn't have good buses. Of course they should, because there are some trips that can be served that way. But you will never succeed in building a truly great transit system when it's built as an afterthought to highways, because the land use drives ridership.
That brings up the second big problem: Transit lines that are promised as an afterthought to highway expansion are always the first thing to be cut when money runs low.
That's exactly what happened on both the Beltway express lanes in Virginia and on the ICC in Maryland, which both use variably-priced tolls to keep traffic moving.
In Virginia, the Beltway HOT lanes were originally sold as "HOT/BRT lanes." But planners stopped promising BRT before construction even started. Now there are a handful of commuter buses that use the HOT lanes, but they're nothing like a true all-day BRT line.
In Maryland, planners never promised BRT on the ICC, but they did promise good bus service. Lo and behold, just a couple of years after opening the ICC, the state proposed to eliminate 3 of its 5 bus routes.
Today, neither the Beltway nor the ICC have bus service anywhere near as good as the regular bus lines on 16th Street in DC or Columbia Pike in Virginia. Say nothing of BRT. On the other hand, those highways got built.
A better alternate exists, but isn't in the plan
Oddly, the TPB's proposed plan doesn't say anything about BRT on arterial roads, where it's more likely to do the most good.
Arterial roads have the most demand for bus service, and produce the most bus ridership, precisely because they're the main streets with all the mixed-use destinations.
But the upcoming BRT lines in Montgomery, Arlington, and Alexandria could be so much more effective if they were coordinated into a larger regional network. As the main cross-jurisdictional planning agency for the DC region, TPB should be helping to plan that network, with lines in Fairfax, Prince George's, and DC.
Instead, they're mucked up pushing a highway plan that doesn't really do much good for transit.
Tell TPB to look at arterial BRT instead
The draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan does say arterials should have "bus priority," such as MetroExtra-like limited stop routes. That's good, but why not push for something better? With many jurisdictions looking at arterial BRT anyway, there's no reason to hold back.
TPB is still accepting public comments on its draft plan, but today is the last day. They need to hear that a few buses won't convince transit advocates to support the biggest expansion of sprawl-inducing highway capacity in the DC region since Eisenhower. They need to hear that the proper place for transit is arterial roads, not highways.
Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore, Richmond, and Norfolk put together. It should be the center its own large transit network. The Silver Line and express buses on the Beltway HOT lanes are good first steps, but in the long run Tysons is going to need more routes, connecting it to more places.
In the long run, Tysons needs something more like this:
In recent years, planners in Virginia have begun to seriously consider a Tysons-centric rapid transit network. It doesn't have a name, and isn't officially separate from any of the other transportation planning going on in the region, but it shows up on long range regional plans like SuperNoVa and TransAction.
In addition to the Silver Line, HOT Lanes Buses, and Tysons' internal circulation network, officials are beginning to study light rail connections to Maryland, Falls Church, and Merrifield, and BRT on the Chain Bridge Road corridor.
It will be years before any of these additional routes are implemented, and they could look very different from this map once they finally are. Details don't exist yet, because at this point these are little more than ideas.
But to work as the urban place Fairfax County officials hope Tysons will become, this is the sort of regional infrastructure it's going to need.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
When VDOT began their "multimodal" study of I-66 inside the Beltway, many assumed that this was just a formality and, regardless of what the models showed, VDOT would recommend widening the road. Turns out, that seems to be exactly what's happening.
When the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) wanted to widen I-66 in a few places, local leaders argued that they hadn't studied the corridor thoroughly enough. Under pressure, VDOT agreed to do a study, and the results are now coming out.
According to VDOT's own data, an option that doesn't require widening I-66 would do more for mobility than widening it. Despite this, VDOT officials told a group of citizen and government stakeholders on Tuesday that they plan to recommend the widening option. Was this just a foregone conclusion from the start?
VDOT showed 4 "packages" of changes at 2 public meetings, along with stats for how each would likely affect travel times, traffic volumes, and more.
Package 1, which would make the existing lanes of I-66 into HOT lanes, free for vehicles with 3 or more people and tolled for 1 and 2, brings almost as much benefit as Package 2, which would add a 3rd lane on top of that. But package 1 costs about $350-650 million less.
Allen Muchnick of the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation was one of the stakeholders in Tuesday's meeting, and got to see the draft final report. It lists the following metrics for packages 1 and 2, plus another option called a "sensitivity test," which tried only applying tolls during the peak period where I-66 is HOV-only today.
Here are the key metrics. The "Pkg 1 + ST" column reflects this new option from the sensitivity test.
|Metric||Pkg 1||Pkg 1 + ST||Pkg 2|
|Daily Person Miles Traveled||+40,490 (0.8%)||+318,388 (5.4%)||+267,509 (4.6%)|
|Person Throughput Measure||+5,632 (1.2%)||+27,669 (6.1%)||+24,098 (5.3%)|
|Peak Period Congested VMT||+10,726 (2.8%)||+11,230 (2.9%)||-65,164 (-16.9%)|
|Transit Ridership||+1,423 (1.1%)||+2,568 (1.9%)||+2,124 (1.6%)|
|Added Capital Cost||$33M||$33M||$345-695M|
|Added Operating Cost||$23M||$23M||$25M
This new option, tolling at peak times, appears to move more people by both car and transit than the widening, yet saves hundreds of millions of dollars. Even without this option, it's likely that widening the road at such cost, and with all the disruption it will cause, is not worth gaining only a few percentage points of extra movement.
The metric of "peak period congested VMT" measures the wrong thing. This is the amount of vehicle miles traveled that happen in an uncongested road. But congetion, per se, is not the problem; a short drive in traffic is better than a long drive without it. The goal is to move people, or more accurately, get people where they need to be.
There were plenty of flaws with this study from the start. This assumes, as the "baseline," that Virginia has implemented every change in the regional Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP). That includes adding the 3 "spot improvements," which would already widen I-66 in several places; and changing I-66 to HOV-3 and assuming that nobody cheats the HOV restrictions.
The CLRP also includes some projects which will help in the I-66 corridor but have no funding today, like lengthening all Metro trains to 8 cars and adding new bus service in the area. Hopefully these will happen, but there's no guarantee.
A better study would have used today as the baseline, and looked at the CLRP changes like the "spot improvements" as some of the options. After all, if another change helps more, it's far from too late to build that instead. We would also then be able to better see the effects of this phantom bus service, though I'm told the full report does provide more detail on the effects of these proposals.
Is the urge to widen I-66 coming from engineers who can't shake the paving habit, or political pressure from above? If a transportation agency is unwilling to actually recommend anything other than widening, regardless of what a study shows, then that study really is the sham as people accused, and I feared, at the time, and VDOT might as well change its name to Virginia Department Of Paving Your Community.
Scandal rocks Draft Wells campaign: The nascent campaign to draft Tommy Wells for mayor in 2014 has been suspended amid new allegations that under Wells' oversight, DC Public Libraries has been blatantly allowing people to use its books for free. The US Attorney is probing similar conduct at the Department of Parks and Recreation. (City Paper, Todd)
Evans eyes Georgetown for Redskins: A new plan from Councilmembers Jack Evans and Michael Brown would demolish Georgetown's campus and move it to Hill East. The current campus would become a practice facility for the Redskins. Some Georgetown neighbors immediately endorsed the plan, because the new facility will create almost no noise and attract very few people to the area. (Post)
Pedestrian safety solved: A new policy from the Montgomery County DOT will make it illegal to cross any arterial streets in the county, eliminating dangerous crossings. People without cars needing to traverse a roadway can get on a bus and ride it to the end of the line and back again. (Gazette, Ben Ross)
Escalator reliability reaches 100%: Metro has achieved a new milestone for escalator maintenance. They have now reached a reliability rate of 100%; all escalators are currently broken at the same time. (Examiner, Matt Johnson)
Hop on I-395 PE: With Virginia's new program to sell naming rights to roads, Sudafed has proposed sponsoring all of Northern Virginia's congestion. (WBJ, Steve Offutt)
LOV-0 coming to a road near you: Google is reportedly working on a new program to design "passengerless cars," which will transport no people at all. In anticipation of this breakthrough, VDOT announced a plan to implement "Low-Occupancy Vehicle" lanes for their exclusive use. (Wired, Neil Flanagan)
DC4D4Thomas: DC for Democracy has endorsed Harry Thomas, Jr. as a write-in candidate for the Ward 5 special election. Members cited Thomas' consistency in talking about revitalizing the ward's main streets without making anything happen, creatively moving around money dedicated to serve youth, and his plan to solve transportation problems by setting up a series of Audi dealerships. (Geoff Hatchard)
Norton targets Wyoming: After several unsuccessful efforts to lobby state legislatures to support DC statehood, Eleanor Holmes Norton announced a new strategy to try to remove statehood from Wyoming, as it is smaller than DC. (DCist, Nick Clark)
The facile claims of many leaders and a number of news reports have fed misconceptions about the Virginia HOT lanes project. The biggest danger of all with this project is that it's very likely to slow down, not speed up, existing carpoolers and buses.
Myth 3: The HOT lanes will speed up travel in the 95/395 corridor.
Right now, traffic generally moves swiftly in the HOV lanes, giving sluggers and bus riders a quick ride to the Pentagon, downtown, and other major job centers.
Once Transurban takes over control of the lanes, they will understandably want to maximize their profit. The more people pay a toll, the more money they make. The more cars enter the lanes, of course, the slower traffic will move. However, as long as the lanes are moving even moderately faster than the often very crowded free lanes, enough people will pay tolls.
Therefore, Transurban's natural profit motive will be to fill up the lanes as much as possible, but only until traffic slows down to the point where people stop paying for the extra benefit. If that means that the carpools and buses are driving 10 miles per hour slower than they do today, well, those carpools and buses aren't their customers. They're not paying tolls. So who cares?
Arlington asked VDOT to include a provision in the contract forcing Transurban to manage the road to keep traffic flowing at the speed limit, 55 inside the Beltway and 65 outside. But VDOT refused.
Instead, they lowered the target speed to 45 miles per hour. That's the lowest permitted for a "transit facility" receiving federal funding, which 95/395 HOV lanes qualify as because of the high volume of buses.
In short, with this project, the state of Virginia is planning to lower the speed of travel on 95 and 395 in the special lanes.
If each bus takes longer to travel up and down 95 and 395, Northern Virginia governments will have to buy more buses and pay people to drive them at huge cost. That dwarfs any money Arlington has spent on this lawsuit. It'll also make transit a less appealing mode of travel, cutting down on ridership.
Myth 4: Arlington sued "rather than press for solutions."
The Washington Post knew about this and other problems. That didn't stop them from penning a bizarre editorial last Friday:
There were legitimate questions about the project, including whether solo drivers would clog the so-called high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and what to do decades from now if the project's engineering, traffic or financial projections turn out to have been miscalculated. After all, the state would cede control of the project to the private partnership, potentially leaving taxpayers will little recourse.In other words, it's unseemly for a county to sue to block a road project no matter how intransigent the state has been or how many big problems crop up with the project's structure. The overwhelming need to build roads, no matter the cost, trumps all.
Rather than press for solutions, however, Arlington did its best to halt progress, and it succeeded.
But as letters from county officials bear out, Arlington avidly tried to press for solutions. The problem was that VDOT ignored them and the Bush Administration gave them a Categorical Exclusion, granting a free pass to ignore those questions.
Pressing for solutions is exactly what this letter from Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria was doing. It asked for specific answers to very specific questions, including the bus speeds and many more.
Myth 5: VDOT didn't move ahead with the lanes because the lawsuit was blocking their ability to proceed.
The Post editorial also claimed Arlington "succeeded" in blocking progress. Did it really?
State officials told us back in 2009 why they stopped the project:
"This is not a good time to be bringing forward a project like this," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, who said the cost of debt financing and the amount of equity required would have been too great to immediately move forward.The lawsuit appears nowhere in Homer's explanation. In fact, the lawsuit hadn't even been filed at the time. Virginia didn't move ahead because the financing didn't work.
He said community concerns about traffic on Seminary Road and at the Shirlington rotary also weighed into the decision.
And InsideNova reported, "Homer also stated that planners will take additional time to examine concerns posed by Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax."
Unfortunately, that's not what they did. Faced with a fiscally impossible project, local and state Republican leaders instead spent a year taking political potshots at liberal Arlington to score personal points.
A big part of the project's fiscal difficulty came from the design inside the Beltway. There, given the dense neighborhoods the road travels through, the design called for adding a third lane inside the footprint of the existing roadway.
That would have narrowed lanes, removed shoulders, and violated Interstate standards in a number of ways that would have required federal waivers. It also would have created some expensive construction work.
By cutting out the 395 portion, VDOT didn't appease Arlington. What they did was to delete the expensive piece of their project, giving the rest more of a reasonable chance for financing.
Americans want better transportation but don't want to pay for it. HOT lanes are a clever gimmick to get something built without paying for it, but it doesn't quite work. Except where roads had been built with giant medians ready-made for HOT lanes, the tolls still don't cover construction costs.
Myth 6: Fairfax and Prince William Counties support the project.
Fairfax does conditionally support it, but has many concerns as outlined in the above letter. Prince William passed a resolution opposing the project as proposed, and actually considered joining the lawsuit.
"Some are worried about giving false hope to commuters that the suit will be successful, but from my perspective, we need to proceed," Prince William Chairman Corey Stewart told the WBJ. "If there is a chance of slowing them down or reducing the negative impact, we have to do everything we can."
That's right, back in 2009 people were discussing this issue based on the merits, since a Democratic governor was pushing it and other Democratic leaders opposing it. Then, suddenly a Republican governor got elected and it turned into a partisan issue.
Now it's Fairfax Republican Pat Herrity and ultra-conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli leading the charge, even after the lawsuit was dropped. Scoring political points was too much of a temptation even once the issue became moot.
The principal criticism of the lawsuit has always been that the lawsuit calls people racists. Herrity charged, "[Arlington] even resorted to claims of racism and sued a federal worker for personal damages We already know that last part is false. What about the rest of it? That'll be the subject for our last and final installment.
We already know that last part is false. What about the rest of it? That'll be the subject for our last and final installment.
Arlington's lawsuit over the I-95/395 HOT lane project has drawn a constant drumbeat of scathing editorials from the Washington Post and others, and critical letters from certain politicians and road activists.
But do the editorial writers and reporters covering this issue really know what they're praising or condemning? Do you? Take this little true-false test:
- True or false: Arlington's lawsuit asked VDOT to cancel the I-395 segment of the project.
- True or false: Arlington dropped the lawsuit because the 395 segment was deleted.
- True or false: The HOT lanes will speed up travel in the 95/395 corridor.
- True or false: Arlington didn't "press for solutions" and just jumped to sue to block the project, as the Washington Post charged in an editorial Friday.
- True or false: VDOT didn't move ahead with the lanes because the lawsuit was blocking their ability to proceed.
- True or false: Fairfax and Prince William Counties want the project to move forward.
- True or false: The lawsuit claims some people are racists for pushing the project.
Answers: They're all false.
Virginia has been eagerly pursuing projects to build HOT lanes, such as on the Beltway. HOT lanes are separated lanes which carpoolers and buses can use for free, but solo drivers can also use for a toll.
On the Beltway, these are new lanes. By charging a toll, theoretically the project can make back much of the cost of construction. To accomplish this, the state has contracted the lanes out to a private consortium, Fluor-Transurban, which will build the lanes, then operate them and keep the profits.
However, charging tolls on lanes doesn't quite pay for building them. Therefore, the contract also includes extra payments from the state, a pernicious provision that if more than 24% of vehicles are the carpoolers or buses not paying a toll, Virginia has to pay a penalty, and other problems.
In theory, a network of roads with HOT lanes has some advantages, though the cost of building many new freeway lanes would be better spent on transit. But if we could go back in time and reconfigure every freeway to have some HOT lanes as part of their original design, we'd at least be able to run a fast network of buses around the region, and encourage carpooling.
We do have one such example to look to: the existing 95/395. Here, there already is a set of HOV lanes, originally built as bus-only lanes (the "Shirley Busway,") then converted to HOV as well as bus. This corridor "is recognized by the transportation community as the most successful HOV facility in the United States today," according to a VDOT study.
The "slugging" system encourages many people who might otherwise drive alone to instead carpool. That means that far more people are traveling per car than elsewhere. Likewise, many very successful, heavily-ridden commuter buses ply the corridor, and riders enjoy a speedy trip thanks to the lanes.
This makes the 95/395 project fundamentally different from others. Instead of considering a new facility, this project would take the existing one, convert it from HOV to HOT by allowing solo drivers on with a toll, and widen it by one lane.
How would this affect the existing HOV performance? Would buses go faster or slower? Would fewer people slug?
The biggest question is, would 3 HOT lanes move more people than 2 HOV lanes? It's not totally clear. Some people would switch to paying the toll instead. If only 1/3 of the 3-passenger HOV cars instead become 3 separate drivers paying tolls, those people could all fill up the new lane with single-passenger cars without the road moving a single extra person than before. The same goes if even a relatively small fraction of bus riders switch to paying the toll.
That would all be great for these companies, since Fluor would get money from the state to build the road, and then Transurban would get money from the tolls. It wouldn't be good for Virginians, though. People would be paying more for the same trip, air quality would decline, the commuter bus operators would lose riders, and the road wouldn't be any better than before.
Or maybe it would be better. If VDOT did an analysis, local governments could either know their fears were founded, or not. For example, an earlier VDOT study of switching 95/395 from HOV-3 to HOV-2 concluded that, at least without new lanes, allowing 2-passenger carpools would increase the number of cars using the road but decrease the overall number of people the road moves each day.
VDOT did an environmental analysis for the Beltway HOT lanes. However, 10 days before the end of the Bush administration, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) gave a "categorical exclusion" allowing Virginia to simply skip this analysis altogether.
And this is why Arlington sued.
Myth 1: Arlington's lawsuit asked VDOT to cancel the I-395 segment of the HOT lane project.
Arlington was asking VDOT not to cancel any particular part of the project, but rather to perform the required analysis before moving ahead. VDOT refused, and wasn't answering questions, so they brought the lawsuit to force the analysis and get some answers.
Myth 2: Arlington dropped the lawsuit because the 395 segment was deleted.
Last week, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton announced that VDOT would cut back the planned HOT lanes to 395. He worded the announcement in a way that made it sound like, under duress, they were acceding to Arlington's request and taking away the portion in Arlington (and Alexandria). Arlington also dropped the lawsuit last week.
To the casual observer, it sure looked like VDOT gave Arlington what they want, so they dropped the suit. And VDOT did give Arlington what they were asking for, but removing the 395 portion wasn't it.
Instead, what's significant is that VDOT agreed to actually perform an environmental analysis. They'll likely still ram through a project with some significant bad elements, but they'll at least answer a few key questions first.
Foremost among those questions is this: Will these HOT lanes actually end up moving traffic more slowly?
In the next part, we'll look at why this is a real danger.
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