Hot Lanes Coming to the Nation’s Capital

Lynne Kiesling

High-occupancy toll, or HOT lanes, may be constructed both on the Beltway and on I-95 south into Virginia. HOT lanes allow carpools to ride without charge, while single drivers can choose to pay a toll and ride in those lanes.

My former colleague Bob Poole is one of the pioneers of the HOT lanes idea; I first discussed his work here over two years ago. Bob also had a recent oped in the Wall Street Journal on extending HOT lanes to include buses:

Nearly a decade of experience in San Diego and Orange County, Calif., has shown that you can keep traffic flowing smoothly, at the speed limit, even during the busiest rush hours. How? Charge a toll, varying by the density of traffic in the lane, for drivers to use the high-occupancy vehicle lanes (HOV). These high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes — on I-15 in San Diego and SR 91 in Orange County — have been a big hit with drivers in all income groups.

The next step is to apply this to mass transit. The idea is to reserve a portion of an HOV lane for buses and vanpools, while selling the remainder of the lane’s capacity to motorists at market prices. The result is a virtual exclusive busway — a VEB.

He and Ted Balaker have also done a policy study analyzing the prospects for such virtual busways in HOT lanes.

The interesting challenge in the DC area is the practice of slugging, where drivers swing by particular locations and pick up passengers so they can use the HOV lanes. Sluggers complain that the HOT lane idea might increase traffic and reduce slugging. I think a lot of that depends on how the toll is set during peak hours. If the peak toll is high enough, then that would reduce the incentive to drive separately. Add to that the cost of parking, and I do not think that the practice of slugging will disappear.

One thought on “Hot Lanes Coming to the Nation’s Capital

  1. I take the VRE today, but in the future my place of business is moving somewhere with no public transportation. I can’t slug up 95 (even as a driver), because all of the slug destinations are either at the Pentagon or downtown Washington, DC.

    Being an econotarian, I am all for HOT lanes. At the same time, a lot of simple & low-cost things could speed up I-95, such as police not using their flashing lights unless in an emergency. Today they pull over HOV breakers, with their emergency flashers on, which slows down the neighboring non-HOV lanes. It doesn’t take much of a localized slow-down to cause a huge backup.

    Maybe they can just take pictures of every car in the HOV lanes using a computerized camera, send the images to India for a first-pass filtering of the count of people in the car, and then go through the remaining pictures to spot obvious HOV offenders and mail them tickets.

    There is also something perverse about the Occoquan river bridge. It seems to make people flip their cars on a regular basis. Someone needs to do an engineering re-design.

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