HOV lanes clogged with hybrids -complicate toll plan

January 12, 2005
By Peter Samuel

High Occupancy Vehicle lanes (HOV) are getting clogged with hybrid vehicles in the Washington metro area, according to Pierce Homer, deputy secretary of transport in Virginia. Speaking at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting the senior state official said there are difficult decisions to be made if a viable express toll lane (ETL) network is to be developed by the public "partnership" with investors. Fluor Corp is negotiating a concession contract with VDOT to build express toll lanes on some 23km (14mi) of the Capital Beltway I-495, and there is an associated project for I-95/I-395 to convert the existing 2-lane reversible HOV facility - the oldest in the country - to 3 lanes reversible toll lanes. Maryland DOT is studying a similar concept for its larger mileage of the Beltway, as well as on I-270, MD5 and I-95 north of Baltimore.

VDOT's Homer said that the sale of hybrid electric vehicles has "exploded" in northern Virginia, largely in response to state legislation allowing them free use of HOV lanes which some say should be acronymized as HOAGs (High Occupancy And Green vehicles) lanes. Citing the premium of $5k to $7k for hybrid vehicles Homer said this indicated a "willingness to pay" for a express lanes. However there was a major problem of how much spare space there would be in HOV lanes to sell for tolls.

The official said: "We have to reconcile those issues."

He mentioned two possibilities:

* a shadow toll for HOVers in which the toll operator would be paid by the state per HOV using the express lanes

* that HOVers would pay the toll and get reimbursement from the state or a tax credit

"HOV is absolutely critical to the functioning of our transport system in northern Virginia." They say it carries more peakhour passengers than general purpose expressway lanes, buses, Metrorail, or commuter rail.

HOV enforcement report

The overall split of 190k people crossing a cordon on the Beltway is SOVs 41%, carpooled 26%, rail 22%, with remainder bus, bike, and walk. Northern Virginia has a 2-lane reversible HOVL facility on the I-95/I-395 radial corridor from the southwest to the Pentagon and on the western radial concurrent HOV lanes on I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road and HOV-only hours on I-66 inside the Beltway.

The 2-lanes of the Shirley Highway (I-95/395) 6:30am to 9:30am carries 31.7k people in 8.6k vehicles while the 3 or 4 general purpose lanes carry 23.5k people in 21.3k vehicles. Metrorail in the corridor carried 16.7k people in the same period. I-66 HOVLs carry 20.9k people in 9.8k vehicles and DTR-HOVLs 5.8k people in 3.2k vehicles. Travel time advantages are Shirley 29mins vs 64mins, I-66 63mins vs 94mins, DTR 12mins vs 13mins.

A report of a HOV enforcement task force Jan 4 2005 says: "Over the past year usage of HOV lanes in northern Virginia by low occupancy vehicles, including occupancy violators and occupancy exempt vehicles, has risen dramatically. These vehicles have clogged HOV lanes in northern Virginia minimizing their effectiveness at moving people quickly and reducing the travel time benefits for commuters willing to rideshare."

A 18 month enforcement campaign by the state police from July 2003 called "No Excuses" saw 28k citations issued but the report says violation rates have only "dropped somewhat." Enforcement is costing $390k/yr.

Of 43940 vehicles counted in ten counts of vehicles in HOV lanes during HOV hours in the fall of 2003 12831 or 29% were single occupant vehicles, ether because had exemptions or because they were violating - the split is split about 9% exempt and 20% violators.

Hybrids classified as "clean special fuel" vehicles get special license plates and are entitled to free travel under Virginia law (46.2-749.3), even though USDOT says this contravenes federal law. However the administration's reauthorizing legislation and several bills in the Congress would allow the states to give hybrids HOV exemption.

Hybrid models are proliferating and sales are strong.

Virginia registrations of hybrids went from 4k to 8k in just six months Mar to Oct 2004.

They are entitled to use HOV lanes in Virginia and now constitute 19% of total vehicles in the HOV lanes of I-95 and 6% to 7% of vehicles in I-395, and smaller proportions in teh shorter hauls from the west on I-66 and Dulles Toll Rd.

"The rapid growth in hybrid vehicles has helped push the (I-95) facility beyond the recommended operating capacity of 1800 vehicles per lane per mile," the task force report says. (p6)

Investors are proposing to add a third lane to most of the I-95/395 HOV 2-lane facility and turn it into express toll lanes, but it is unclear how high occupancy vehicles and hybrids will be treated there. I-95/395 supports a large proportion of long trips which are well suited to express toll lanes.

The Beltway is more problematic. It is typically used for between one and two interchanges - for shifts between radial highways, as Ron Kirby metro planning director put it. Of the traffic at the Springfield VA interchange (I-95/I-495) at the southern end of the proposed ETLs, Kirby said, only 5% continues to the American Legion Bridge, the end of the project.

VDOT's Pierce Homer said at TRB he's concerned about willingness to pay tolls for short trips on the beltway but stressed that the private sector is better at evaluating willingness to pay than government. The Beltway express toll lanes project - now being negotiated - is going to be made or broken, he said, on the issue of ramps into activity centers. Widening the mainline from 2x4 lanes to 2x6 lanes is the easy part of the project and relatively cheap because no extra right of way is needed. However the tough part is nutting out which interchange ramps are cost-effective since they are the most expensive element but also the most necessary to make the thing viable.

Maryland

Marsha Kaiser director of planning at Maryland DOT says the most advanced of Maryland's new toll projects is the Inter County Connector which with all electronic highway speed tolling and variable toll rates will be something of an all-tolled express lanes project. It is the governor's "number one priority." Ehrlich promised to have construction under way by the end of his first year term.

Kaiser said: "The governor ran an election campaign promising to attack congestion and he had a very aggressive program of road construction. Our job is to help him deliver on that promise."

She said they had made an major effort to learn from the experiences of express toll lanes elsewhere: "the good, the bad, and the ugly."

Maryland is proposing 100% tolling on its express toll lanes - no free rides for HOVs. Only full sized transit buses will be untolled.

The plan for express toll lanes on I-270 will require support from USDOT, she said, because the lanes will take about 20km (12mi) of existing 2x1 HOV lanes and add lanes to form 2x2 toll lanes to MD-124 in Gaithersburg, and a single toll lane each direction for the 34km (21mi) from Gaithersburg to Frederick. So far USDOT officials have told Maryland they cannot convert the HOV lane to toll lanes without repaying the federal grants used to build them in the late 1990s.

Kaiser says HOV in Maryland is a failure. HOV enforcement won't work, she says. And unlike Virginia there is no real political constituency for HOV in Maryland, so the sensible thing is to turn the failed HOV lanes into toll managed lanes open to anyone who wants to pay for a quick ride.

Analysis so far suggests the tolls will not fully fund construction but tolling will help manage traffic and deliver the option for quick reliable on-time travel on occasions when that is important to people. It will also help get buses out of congestion, Kaiser said. The Ehrlich administration is big on bus rapid transit (BRT), she said.

On the Beltway in Maryland two widening scenarios both involve adding just one lane to the existing four lanes each direction. One option would have a single express toll lane each direction and leave the existing 2x4 free lanes. The second option of "add-one, take-one" would add the fifth lane and configure the roadway for 3 free lanes and 2 express toll lanes each direction.

"The public is saying they will accept tolls when tolls provide reliability of travel and speed," she said.

Ron Kirby director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments said the FTA has to cooperate for the Washington region to develop express toll lanes. They need to recognize the lanes as "fixed guideway miles" in formula grants. Buses will be an important element on them. Kirby said the Kennedy FAST lanes legislation is a threat to express toll lanes with its requirement that tolls goes entirely to repaying capital and end when capital is repaid. Tolls need to be a permanent feature of express toll lanes to manage traffic, Kirby said.

Local elected officials and others here were enthused in favor of toll lanes by a major FHWA sponsored value pricing conference in Washington DC two years ago at which project managers spoke from around the country, Kirby said.

"There is now a great deal of receptivity to the idea (of express toll lanes). This is a concept whose time has really come," he said. There were still challenges in designing acceptable and viable projects but they are "manageable issues." TOLLROADSnews 2004-01-12


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