Back in 2001 I recall sitting at a table of Prince William YRs listening to our guest speaker for the evening then-Delegate Jack Rollison (R-Woodbridge) talking about the future of transportation in Northern Virginia. In the talk Del. Rollison referenced a bridge that had been built at the end of the existing HOV lanes on 95 that was left there after a massive project in which the bridge was constructed to realign the main lanes of 95 that added a lane and expanded the main 95 lanes. After the realignment project was completed the main lanes were shifted back to their original alignment the bridge was left. Del. Rollison asked us if we knew why the temporary bridge was left where it was even though the HOV lanes ended before it and it then had no use. He was proud to exclaim, that it was smart planning. He was excited to tell us about plans to extend the HOV lanes down to Stafford County and having the bridge in place would be a major benefit to the extension of HOV lanes.
In 2001 the general consensus was HOV lanes would be extended at least to Stafford County and would be just as they were from DC to Dumfries, traditional HOV lanes. The state was lined up starting to fund the project for the future extension. However, in 2004 the conversation changed from HOV to HOT. HOT – High Occupancy Toll.
On December 29th the HOV lanes on I-95 from Stafford County to Edsall Road will become HOT lanes. To travel on these lanes vehicles will have to have an E-Z Pass transponder regardless if they have 3 or more riders. For those that are car poolers, slug drivers and van pool drivers will need to fork over $35 for the privilege of driving HOV. That’s right even HOV cars will need an E-Z Pass and the only way to get an E-Z Pass in Virginia is to purchase one for $35. Granted that $35 is the first allotment for tolls to be paid. And for those that are fans of Hybrid and other clean fuel vehicles – no longer is there a benefit to use HOV lanes as a single driver for most Hybrid owners. Sure you can drive by yourself in your Prius, but you will be paying a toll if you do. Ride a motorcycle – well you are in luck. Motorcycles can still access the lanes and not pay a toll – as long as you have purchased the $35 E-Z Pass.
The story of HOT lanes only gets better. The company that the state contracted with to manage the HOT lanes is a foreign owned corporation. Transurban is an Australian based corporation. While they figured out they needed to have a US based company in order to lobby and give gifts to state law makers and formed a US based company that is a subsidiary of Australian based Transurban, all profits flow down under. For all drivers on the 95 corridor that choose to pay a toll for a slightly faster trip north or south the money you are paying is not only flowing out of state, but it’s flowing right out of the country.
In 2005 I was a commuter from my new home in Stafford County to Washington DC. I typically commuted as a slug driver, picking up two of my fellow commuters at commuter lots and taking 95 to the HOV lanes and on into the city. I started to discuss the prospects of HOT lanes with my fellow commuters and quickly learned others, like me, were very concerned about what HOT could mean to the future of commuting in Northern Virginia. We formed an organization and called it SaveHOV.org. We attended meetings and spoke out against the HOT plans. We most certainly garnered attention of politicians, as many seeking office in Prince William County quickly joined the anti-HOT side of the campaign (http://www.slug-lines.com/forum2/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=6315). News outlets picked up on it and authored editorials against the proposals (https://web.archive.org/web/20050504151221/http://www.potomacnews.com/scripts/isapi_srun.dll/servlet/Satellite?pagename=WPN%2FMGArticle%2FWPN_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1031781704348&path=!news!opinion). Transurban responded with glitzier proposals and promises of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and they were going to station tow trucks at key locations to rapidly clear traffic incidents in the HOT lanes. While the politicians in power were swayed by the shiny PowerPoints, the lanes come with no BRT and I doubt any tow trucks are going to be lying in wait in the HOT lanes just waiting for an accident to occur.
The politicians will crow about HOT lanes and how wonderful they are and they are market driven (http://www.williamjhowell.org/express-lanes-information/). The truth of the matter is 80% of the lanes were already existing; paid for by taxpayers of the past. They maybe market driven from the government’s point of view. If profits hit thresholds the state does stand to benefit with shared profits, but if profits don’t hit a certain threshold Transurban can dial back the level of HOV they allow in the lanes. That’s right, if there are not enough drivers paying tolls HOV could disappear.
HOT Lanes may prove to be an answer to congested commutes on I-95, but for now I remain skeptical. HOT will give the privilege of using the lanes for those who can afford it, but for those who are not willing to pay $20+ each direction to get to work will continue to be stuck in traffic. The state should have lived up to its initial plans to extend HOV to Stafford County (and beyond) with HOV intact as HOV-3 during rush hours and open lanes during other times. The politicians and state lawmakers that think HOT lanes are a good idea – need to reconnect with those who they represent and spend a few weeks commuting in Northern Virginia. Our commuters are filled with great ideas – maybe you could listen to a few and stop patting yourselves on the back for yet another sell out of state assets and implementing yet another bad idea.