Monday, October 6, 2014

95 Express Lanes: Nice new construction, bad highway policy

Been caught in construction delays along I-95 in Northern Virginia over the past two years? Have you been hoping for a better ride as a result?

Sorry. When the project, called 95 Express Lanes, opens next year it may not do you a whole lot of good. Upgrades along the 29 mile stretch between Stafford, Va., and the D.C. Beltway interchange near Alexandria are virtually all for HOV lanes restricted to two-axle vehicles with three or more passengers.

Actually the $1 billion project funded by both tax dollars and private investors includes at least two elements that are unfair to truckers and should worry everyone who relies on public highways. Sadly, these elements seem to indicate the direction of highway policy across America, and it’s not kind to truckers.

First, of course, are those HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes. To serve heavy commuter traffic, the I-95 HOV lanes are reversible, heading north toward the capital in the morning and south to the suburbs in the evening. This makes much sense.

But why not open those lanes to all? Does it make sense to give HOVs a faster ride at the expense of everyone else? HOV lanes are supposed to increase carpooling and make the air cleaner, but studies fail to show they do either. The only thing that studies – and common sense – do show is that reducing density on HOV lanes necessarily increases density on Everyone Else Lanes. You’ll be stuck on these lanes in your truck even though your diesel taxes helped pay for those shiny new HOV lanes.

Second, I object to the addition of High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) riders to the HOV lanes. When 95 Express Lanes open for business next year, drivers with a special version of E-ZPass will be able to use the HOV lanes – even without high occupancy – at a price. Sure, that could help a guy who’s late for work or someone with a personal emergency. But let’s face it, the HOT privilege is aimed at folks who can afford to pay the extra amount and will do so on a regular basis. Just as in the case of HOV, they will travel faster at the expense of those in the Everyone Else lanes.

Why should you care if they charge four-wheelers to use the HOV lanes?

Because it’s a terrible precedent that allows tolls to creep onto once open, public highways. It’s the HOV lanes today and the Everyone Else Lanes tomorrow.

Worse, HOT establishes another category of highway privilege, this time based on money. Picture the interstate of the future. Two lanes for recent vintage luxury cars; two lanes for buses, minivans, and family sedans; and finally two lanes for dented four-wheelers with at least one trash-bag window and a donut spare.  

Oh yes, and the 18-wheelers.

And of course there’s congestion pricing on those HOV lanes, another money grab. But don’t get me started.