The Virginia Department of Transportation said yesterday that it would build high-occupancy toll lanes on a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway, working with a private partner to create the first of an extensive network of the new-style highways for the Washington region.Not everybody will pay to cut the line each day.
The plan would add two lanes on each side of the Beltway, separated from other traffic, between Springfield and the Georgetown Pike. The high-occupancy toll lanes -- or HOT lanes -- would be free for car pools of three or more people, but others would pay for the privilege of using them. To keep the lanes from clogging, tolls would increase with the amount of traffic.
"We want to build HOT lanes," said Virginia Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet. "I think it could be one of the few options that we have to meaningfully improve mobility."
Virginia and Maryland leaders plan a network of congestion-priced highways that they say will unclog roadways in a region with the third-worst traffic in the nation. Virginia officials are considering additional HOT lanes on parts of Interstates 95 and 395, and Maryland officials are exploring plans to build them on the Beltway, I-270, the Baltimore Beltway and I-95 north of Baltimore.
Officials have embraced the concept as a way to give motorists relief from chronic tie-ups. They do not expect drivers to take HOT lanes every day, but they believe that everyone would use them sometimes. Occasional users might include parents who are late to pick up children from day care, business people who are rushing to meet clients, and fed-up commuters who simply want to get out of traffic.Not everybody likes the idea.
"I'm all for it. I would gladly pay a premium," said Harry Dennis of Arlington, a lawyer who drives the Beltway almost every day. Dennis said he would have taken the Beltway yesterday to get from Reston to Springfield if it had HOT lanes, but because traffic is so unpredictable, he took back roads.
"It's such a crapshoot the way it is right now," Dennis said.
Backers also say the lanes would allow for bus service that Beltway traffic jams now make impractical. In addition, drivers on regular lanes would benefit when cars move over to the HOT lanes, supporters say.
HOT lane opponents say the tolls amount to double taxation because public funds are used to build roads. "We pay the taxes for them; we shouldn't have to pay for them again with tolls," said Jim Wamsley, transportation chairman of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter. Wamsley said he objected to the Beltway HOT lanes having tolls at all hours, rather than just during peak times.This statement sounds a bit surprising. But when I visited the Sierra Club's energy issues pages, I was not able to find any discussion of carbon taxation, so Mr Wamsley's ignorance is not compounded by inconsistency. And it's rather churlish of him to not thank me for kicking in some of the money for his congested roads, which I do every time I fill my gas tank or replace -- thankfully, not that frequently -- a set of tires, assuming Congress isn't playing around again with the highway trust fund.