Highway planners revisiting HOT lanes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Motorists in Maryland may one day be able to buy their way out of congestion, state officials said yesterday as they once again began to study the so-called Lexus Lanes that were rejected several years ago as inequitable.

Officials are considering HOT lanes - for High Occupancy Toll - for the four lanes the state plans to add to Interstate 95 from the Baltimore line to White Marsh, for the proposed Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery County and for the Capital Beltway.

HOT lanes are usually free to public buses and cars with three or more occupants, but single-occupant cars would pay to use them - typically about 20 cents a mile, depending on traffic.

"Wherever we are looking to expand or make improvements in roads, we want to look at this," said Deputy Transportation Secretary Trent Kittleman, adding that the state would not convert existing lanes to HOT lanes. Any HOT lanes would have to be new lanes on existing roads or part of new roads.

"We would never charge drivers to use lanes they've been using for years," Kittleman said. "That is not in the plan in any way, shape or form."

She asked state planners yesterday to consider variable tolls for the ICC's proposed HOT lane, which would change depending on the level of congestion. The more crowded the free lanes, the more expensive it would be for single-occupant cars to use the HOT lanes. (Price limits are usually set, so tolls don't get out of hand.)

The proposal was brought before the Maryland Transportation Authority board yesterday. The board did not act on the HOT lanes idea, but members expressed support.

"They're a very viable alternative and they have a great deal of capacity for raising revenue and reducing congestion," said board member Walter E. Woodford Jr.

Woodford did express concern about the size of the highways the state is planning. He noted that the plan to add four lanes to I-95, in addition to the existing six lanes, would make the road 326 feet wide in some places - wider than a football field is long.

"Looking at it, I get a little uncomfortable with this broad expanse of roadway," Woodford said, "and I wonder if there's any way, aesthetically, it can be improved on."

"Double-deckers," Kittleman joked.

HOT lanes are generally supported by environmental groups, as long as they are carved out of existing lanes, because the groups believe it makes highways more efficient and reduces the pollution generated by cars sitting in traffic.

"We would rather see an existing lane become a HOT lane than to be adding more lanes," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental group. "More lanes, we know, doesn't solve the problem. If we continue to tell the public that by building more lanes, congestion will go away, we're lying to them."

Schmidt-Perkins wants to see the money made from HOT lanes spent on new transit programs. "That really gets people off the road," she said, "and is the real solution to congestion."

Meanwhile, the automobile club AAA takes the opposite position of the environmental groups. John White, the spokesman for AAA in Maryland, said adding tolls to existing lanes amounts to double taxation because the roads were built with taxpayers' money.

"But if the only way to add capacity to the system is through tolls to finance the construction of new lanes, then we would be in favor of that," White said.

This is the second time the state has studied HOT lanes. The first study began in 1999 and was killed in 2001 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who said it would be "unfair to link an easier commute with a person's ability to pay."

At the time, the state was considering making a new lane on U.S. 50 in Prince George's County a HOT lane. Instead, it became a "high occupancy vehicle" lane restricted to vehicles with at least two occupants.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. does not share his predecessor's philosophical objection to toll lanes. But he has not come out in favor of the lanes, either. He is withholding judgment until the state study is complete, said spokesman Henry Fawell.

"His ultimate goal is trying to provide the easiest commute possible in the most taxpayer-friendly way," Fawell said. "And we'll look at any option that can help us reach that goal."

Three highways in the country charge solo drivers to use express lanes - one outside Los Angeles, one in San Diego and one in Houston - and officials say they have been well-received.

"If you just add lanes and there's more congestion, there's still no escape," Edward J. Regan III, a HOT lanes consultant, told the transportation authority board yesterday. "People like the ability to get out of traffic when they need to, even if they don't do it every day."

HOT lanes are being planned for eight highways, including the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia. The state is planning to add two HOT lanes in each direction for a 12-mile stretch.

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