Not Hot on HOT Lanes

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is pursuing the curious specter of High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes on Interstate 495—the Capital Beltway. HOT lanes are very similar to High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes already present on many roads in urban areas of the United States. HOV lanes require that you have a certain number of people in the car to use them, while HOT lanes give you the additional option to buy access if you don’t have enough people in the car as-if you’re on a toll road.

I have many objections to HOV lanes, some to state toll roads, and even more to HOT lanes.

First and foremost, governments realized a century ago that a reliable road infrastructure is a public good. As a result, private roads and turnpikes were taken under the control of the states and provided freely to the public. Roads are a primary conduit through which our economy operates—allowing the transport of individuals to employers, goods to retailers, and so on. Without them, the economy doesn’t work (or doesn’t work as well, anyway). It is for this reason that the transportation infrastructure became the responsibility of the state and, later and to a lesser extent, the federal government.

If roads are a public good, and if they are to be operated by government, all the rules by which government operates must apply to the roads. One of these rules—that all citizens are guaranteed equal protection—is violated by HOV/HOT lanes. Citizens in the car alone must be given equal access to the road infrastructure as compared to citizens that have passengers in the car. The government is not permitted to discriminate based on what or who is in your car. All drivers have paid equal/proportional taxes for the building and maintenance of those HOV lanes, and thus have equal right to use them. An argument can be made that the reduction of pollution by increased carpooling is a public good, but I would like to see statistics to back this up. I would bet that the increased pollution from poor traffic flow, idling, and stopping-and-going (caused by cramming the majority of traffic into three lanes while the carpoolers zoom by in the fourth) outweighs any benefit of a nominal increase in carpooling.

When it comes to toll roads, the government is permitted to charge reasonable fees for the use of their infrastructure or services. This is why we have to pay a fee to get a driver’s license issued, to apply for a marriage permit, and so on. My objection to toll roads is primarily not based on law, but on ethics. If we are paying taxes to support the road infrastructure, why charge me again with a toll? Double-dipping to fund a particular road might not be illegal, but it is certainly immoral. I am open to charging tolls on new roads for a period of time to cover the cost of building that road (which was the promise the state government made and then broke when building the Dulles Toll Road and most of Virginia’s toll roads), but the tolls must be terminated once the road is paid-for.

The most egregious abuse of drivers on toll roads is when they are charged a fee for the use of the road, but then are only permitted to use three of the four lanes because one of them is HOV only. You make me pay to use it, then won’t let me use all of it? Obscene.

HOT lanes combine many of the worst features of HOV lanes and toll roads. First, the preferential treatment toward certain drivers continues just like on HOV lanes. Meanwhile, drivers who don’t meet the HOV requirements are permitted to buy access, which is just another immoral example of double-dipping—charging drivers who already paid their taxes for access to part of their road infrastructure.

So what’s the solution? I would like to see the state use its time and resources to improve the roads for all to use. If you’re going to add four lanes to the beltway, great! Just add four lanes to the beltway. In fact, if you get rid of the barriers to separate the HOT lanes from the main lanes, maybe you’ll be able to add six lanes instead! Think of all the money the state would save on access ramps, toll booths, toll booth staffing, HOV/HOT enforcement, etc. Every cent saved is a cent could be reinvested into other roads in the area that need improvement without taking anything away from the Beltway project.

And if the state really can’t pull together a capital investment plan for improving the beltway and our other roads in Northern Virginia, then charge everybody a toll for a set amout of time—say, two years—to cover the initial cost. Ongoing maintenance, however, must be paid out of the existing transportation taxes.

Here’s some common sense stuff that the Virginia Department of Transportation can do to ease our traffic mess in the short term at minimal cost, laying the ground work for better improvements in the long term:

  • Change the Dulles Toll Road and Dulles Greenway into a free-access ‘Dulles Expressway’.
  • Eliminate the Dulles Access Road entirely and ‘merge’ it with the Expressway with a couple new lanes where the medians are now.
  • Establish a toll on the Capital Beltway (working with Maryland) to help fund widening the road and the existing construction projects at the Wilson Bridge and elsewhere for a fixed period (between 2-5 years), after which the toll will be removed.
  • Eliminate HOV restrictions on all roads. This will drastically improve traffic flow on Interstate 66, the Dulles Expressway, Interstate 395, and more. It’s not a long-term solution, but it buys some time while other work is done and it eliminates the ‘equal protection’ issues I mentioned above.
  • ‘Lock-Box’ the transportation fund so that money can only be used for transportation needs.
  • Earmark 75 percent of the transportation money over the next five years for projects in the Northern Virginia and Tidewater regions where it is most-needed, with the remaining 25 percent for critical projects only in the rest of the state. After five years, this breakdown will be re-addressed (50/50?) for another five-year period, before returning to ‘normal’. This will ensure that the critical short-term chaos in the urbanized areas of the state gets addressed without causing any significant long-term harm to the rural areas of the state.

Anybody in Richmond listening?

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.