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We Can No Longer Afford to Give Away Highway Lanes to Carpools and Low-Emission Vehicles

High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) and Carpool Lanes promote congestion, while benefiting few commuters. Charging tolls rather than using HOV lanes will reduce traffic while bringing in much needed transportation funding.
July 13, 2004, 12am PDT | C. Kenneth Orski
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 C. Kenneth OrskiRoad space is becoming a scarce commodity in America's metropolitan areas and there are few prospects of significantly increasing highway capacity except at an exorbitant cost. Can we afford to give away a portion of this valuable resource in the form of lanes exclusively reserved for carpools? And should we extend this give-away to low-emission vehicles, as called for in the Administration's and House surface transportation reauthorization bills and in proposed California legislation (AB 2628)?

Most certainly not, says Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute in a recent commentary in Public Works Financing ("Rethinking HOV and HOT Lanes," May 2004). "America faces twin crises in urban transportation: a congestion crisis and a funding crisis. Express Toll Lanes that give every driver a congestion-relief alternative on major expressways could address both crises," asserts Poole. But this solution, he says, risks being compromised if we dedicate highway lanes to special classes of drivers or vehicles.

I agree. The original rationale for giving priority to carpoolers was to conserve fuel. But today, with the number of carpoolers dwindling and with the remaining carpools largely among family members (who would share a ride with or without an HOV incentive), reserving this valuable space for such a relatively small band of commuters simply makes no sense. Evidence from California's express toll lanes shows that drivers are willing to pay 50-60 cents per mile for the privilege of traveling in congestion-free lanes. Express Toll Lanes thus offer a potential to generate millions of dollars in toll revenue -- money that could be used to supplement the gas tax and improve our highways and transit service.

As for letting low-emission vehicles to use HOV lanes for free, "it's crazy to give away this valuable space to people who would be buying hybrids anyway," says Poole. Hybrids are already selling very well, with long waiting lists and in some case at premium prices. The California Air Resources Board estimates that 55,000 hybrid vehicles will be on California highways by 2007 -- with or without the HOV incentive. Letting 55,000 hybrids into Express Toll Lanes for free would quickly fill up those lanes, deprive motorists of a congestion-free alternative and foreclose the opportunity to provide regional express bus service.

There are some indications that transportation officials are rethinking the notion that carpools should get free access to new express toll lanes. The state of Maryland intends to charge all vehicles without exception on its proposed Express Toll Lane network. (See "Maryland's Express Toll Lanes: A Giant Step Forward," Innovation Briefs, June 2004).

There are some good reasons for doing so, argues Poole. First, giving away part of the toll lane capacity to free carpools might make such lanes unable to generate enough revenues to pay for their construction. Secondly, charging all vehicles does away with the problem and expense of enforcing car occupancy requirements and drastically reduces the number of potential violators. Every vehicle using Express Toll Lanes (with a possible exception of transit buses) would be obliged to have a transponder. A vehicle without one would be easily identified, videotaped and assessed a fine, as is currently done on facilities equipped with E-Z pass or other electronic toll collection technology.

Yes, encouraging ridesharing and low-emission vehicles are worthy public policy goals. But should they take precedence over congestion relief and generation of badly needed highway funds? We join Bob Poole in saying it is time for a serious debate on this issue.


C. Kenneth Orski is editor and publisher of Innovation Briefs, an influential and widely read bimonthly publication reporting on surface transportation developments. He also heads the Urban Mobility Corporation, a Washington-based consulting firm specializing in transportation management and technology transfer. A former Associate Administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, he was a member of President George W. Bush's transportation transition team.

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