Greater Los Angeles and the D.C. Metro area vie every year for a dubious honor: worst traffic congestion in the nation. National Capital Region planners hope to surrender the title to L.A. for good by building High Occupancy Toll lanes. HOT lanes aren’t sexy, but they’re all the rage among highwaymen.
HOT lanes will widen the American Legion Bridge, an I-495 choke point. (Image: VDOT)
As with traditional High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, carpoolers and transit buses can use them for free. Unlike HOV lanes, solo drivers can also use HOT lanes – if they pay a toll. Just as the ride-hailing companies adjust fares according to demand, an algorithm adjusts that toll depending on traffic volumes. This dynamic pricing balances supply and demand to maintain 65-mph free-flowing traffic on the lanes. Pay the toll or triple up and a one-hour trip in soul-destroying, stop-and-go traffic becomes an easy half hour drive. Come to think of it, commuters may find HOT lanes very sexy indeed.
Critics call these “Lexus Lanes,” arguing that only the wealthy can afford the tolls. But a study by Transurban, the company that built and manages the HOT lanes in Virginia, found that about 60% of drivers who use the lanes frequently have household incomes below the region’s median. One in 20 drivers reported using the lanes daily. About a third of drivers are reimbursed by their employers. The study does not reveal who is paying the highest tolls, charged when congestion is worst: the toll on 495 has topped $32 and the I-95 toll reached an eye popping $46.25.
Carpooling is always an option for those unwilling or unable to pay the toll. In fact, Washington has a fairly robust slugging culture. People wanting a ride, “slugs” assemble at Park and Ride lots or similar rendezvous points. Drivers pull up, much like taxis, and call out their destinations. No money changes hands, but drivers can save an hour or more on their trips without paying the toll.
Virginia now has 45 miles of HOT lanes along I-66, I-395, I-95, and I-495. That number will double by 2022. Old Dominion’s lanes will eventually cross the Potomac River, establishing a beachhead in neighboring Maryland. Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and his highway department will open up a second front in the war on traffic by adding HOT lanes to I-270 as it pours down from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and spills onto 495, also known as the Capital Beltway.
Hogan: “These two massive, unprecedented projects to widen I-495, I-270 will be absolutely transformative.” (Image: MDOT)
These will be magic highways, proponents say. Not only will they be congestion free, they will also reduce congestion on the existing, unrestricted lanes by about 10%. They’ll encourage carpooling and improve bus service, boosting the appeal of mass transit. Moreover, Maryland has earmarked a portion of toll revenues for mass transit projects. All of this adds up to moving more people in fewer vehicles, another congestion win. Even if there is more traffic overall, the governor argues that emissions will drop because idling vehicles produce excess CO2. Researchers, however, still argue this point.
Freeways for free
Most magically of all, the HOT lanes won’t cost taxpayers a cent. Since it was first authorized in 1956, Interstate Highway Construction has been funded almost entirely out of gas taxes paid into the federal Highway Trust Fund. But inflation and rising vehicle fuel efficiency left the fund insolvent in 2008. More precisely, Congress has refused either to reduce highway spending or increase gas tax revenues to maintain the fund. By 2018, Congress had quietly voted to transfer $143.6 billion from the federal budget to keep the fund solvent.
At the state level, any politician who tries to raise gas taxes will be looking for a new job after the next election. The only worse sin would be asking voters to pay tolls on roads they currently use for free. It’s worth adding that federal law forbids states from putting tolls onto existing no-fee highways paid for with federal-aid funds except in very limited circumstances.
Transurban designed, built, and operates Virginia HOT Lanes (Image: Transurban)
So, Governor Hogan wanted to make crystal clear that his plan would cost nothing. “What is currently free will continue to always remain free,” Hogan said, “… new and optional express lanes, built at no cost to the taxpayers… will remove much of the traffic from the existing roadways without billions of dollars of taxpayer money being spent and without billions of dollars in tax increases.”
Public-Private-Partnerships, known as P3s, make this bit of financial sleight of hand possible. Instead of raising taxes or adding to the state’s debt, the money will come from private investors. Maryland will choose an infrastructure company, such as Transurban, to design, build, and manage the new lanes. P3s are as hot as HOT lanes these days. Governor Hogan and his highway agency officials have assured stakeholders that private companies will assume all of the risk while sharing the profits. But not everyone has accepted these assurances, prompting a bitter response from the governor. He called those opposed to his plan “pro-traffic activists” with a “plot to keep the roads filled with traffic.”
Inequality baked in
Whether or not the “Lexus Lane” charge is true, inequality is already baked into the existing Interstate routes the express lanes will follow. The original 1950s Interstate plans called for I-395 in Virginia and 270 in Maryland to carry drivers into and through the District. As originally planned, I-95 would have run straight as an arrow through the city, tunneling under the National Mall.
D.C. residents stopped the Interstates from entering the city in the 1960s. (Image: D.C. Public Library)
When the bulldozers arrived in the 1960s, residents of D.C., a black majority city then and now, had other ideas. They understood that the highways were built to serve white suburbanites, not them. Historians now understand that redlining and federal housing policy were discriminatory. Urban renewal and highway building were designed to work together.
Sammie Abbott, a bespectacled radical of the old school, and Reginald Booker, a leader in the black liberation and civil rights movements in the District, had founded the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis. The CIA and FBI kept a files on both men. Angela Rooney, another leader of the ECTC, recalled that the Washington Post “called us everything from communists to pinkos to that little band of discontented people. . . .”
The ECTC adopted “White Men’s Roads thru Black Men’s Homes” as its rallying cry – although it was a rainbow coalition. They targeted the planned Three Sisters Bridge, which would have carried 95 over the Potomac. “Smash the 3 Sisters Bridge,” their posters read, “Fight against environmental destruction, colonial rule, and racist exploitation in the nation’s capital.” That battle coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King and the urban riots that ensued. White flight accelerated.
In the end though, through direct action, legal action, and speaking out at hearings and board meetings, they defeated the highways and secured funding for mass transit. The D.C. Metro is their legacy.
The region’s dysfunctional highways are also a legacy of that turbulent era. I-395 and I-66 reach unplanned dead ends just inside the city limits. I-95 and the widened 270 pour traffic onto the already choked Beltway. In short, the HOT lanes will be run alongside a highway network created not only by grand technocratic plans, but also the difficult racial politics of a turbulent decade.
Opposition to the HOT lanes, although not insignificant, is unlikely to rise to the levels seen in the 1960s; they will be built mostly within existing rights of way. Although the region remains divided by race, planners today are more sensitive to racial justice. But highway projects take years to complete and are designed to last a century or more. We may look back and wonder why, in 2020, anyone thought it was a good idea to add even one more mile of road to serve the automobile. Magical though they may be, the HOT lanes can never be made to disappear. Once they are built, we will be living with them for generations.