Car pools in the fast lane


If you've never heard of HOV lanes before, get ready to add a new acronym to your vocabulary. Maryland starts its first high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) program later this month in congested Montgomery County. If it proves a success, these express lanes for car-poolers will be tried on overcrowded interstates in the Baltimore area, too.

HOV lanes won't unlock the gridlock along I-270 or anywhere else. A fast lane expressly for cars with two or more passengers during rush hours isn't a panacea. Roads will remain far too crowded in this megalopolis. But car-pool lanes can offer some much-needed relief and make rush-hour commuting more bearable.

The biggest advantage of these HOV lanes is that they should give a big boost to ride-sharing. Neighbors headed toward the same work area now could find it faster, cheaper and less stressful to join forces and use one car instead of two or more. They won't have to face huge backups on I-270 in the five lanes of traffic reserved for regular drivers. Instead, the car-poolers can zip along in the exclusive HOV fast lane.

About one in five cars on I-270, which runs north from the crowded Capital Beltway toward Rockville, Gaithersburg, Clarksburg and into Frederick County, carries more than one passenger. Overall, the road carries 160,000 vehicles a day, a number that is expected to balloon to 250,000 vehicles a day by 2010. Such growth justifies the HOV alternative, which should help to ease the pain of commuting.

HOV lanes are also necessary adjuncts of the new federal Clean Air Act, which forces Maryland to consider such options as mandating increased car-pooling as a way to reduce air pollution in the Baltimore region. Once the high-speed lanes are in place along the Baltimore Beltway, I-95 and U.S. 50 from Washington to Annapolis later in this decade, commuters will have an added (and enticing) incentive to drive to work with some friends or colleagues.

Maryland is the 13th state to add car pool lanes to congested metropolitan highways. Yet the inexorable growth of vehicular traffic on these roads underlines the futility of simply adding more and more lanes of concrete to these roadways. The solution lies in mass-transit alternatives. Until government gets serious about investing in large-scale mass-transit options for suburban commuters, car-pool lanes are about the best that rush-hour drivers can expect.

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