A Transportation Project that Pays for Itself

Converting car pool lanes to toll lanes will reduce congestion and create jobs


Los Angeles drivers may have the lead in wasted hours in traffic, according to a new study, but Beltway drivers are coming in a close second. 62 hours a year are lost on the roads around Washington, and plans to get them back are meeting a lot of opposition.

The Texas Transportation Institute says these delays cost each metro driver $1,200 a year. Several projects are underway to alleviate this gridlock, but one—the plan to convert the I-95/395 carpool lanes into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes—is catching a lot of misdirected grief.

The region's carpool lanes are already clogged and can only get worse. In 10 years, 64,000 new jobs are expected to arrive thanks to the Base Realignment and Closure plan in which Andrews Air Force Base and Fort Meade will add new personnel and more missions. The number of agitated drivers will increase as well.

The toll lanes would reduce congestion in regular lanes and improve bus service. Meanwhile, tolls would generate enough money to pay for an additional lane and to extend the HOT lanes 28 miles to Spotsylvania County.

Cities across the country—Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, Denver, Minneapolis, and San Diego—are converting carpool lanes to HOT lanes to cut congestion and generate funding for transportation projects that otherwise couldn't be afforded.

In San Diego and Houston, where HOT lanes have been in operation for over a decade, they are very popular. Commuters of all income levels use the lanes.

Most people use them occasionally, like when they have to get to the airport or an important appointment. Parents often choose HOT lanes because the tolls are less than daycare late-fees. The free-flowing toll lanes also make bus service more reliable and let emergency vehicles reduce response times and save lives.

Today, you can forget it if you need to get somewhere quickly during rush hour. Which is why toll lanes provide a valuable service.

Toll lanes offer "congestion insurance." They ensure you can get somewhere on time when it really matters.

You won't need it every day, but you're glad it's there when you do. And you only pay when you use the lanes.

Claims that the lanes will cost drivers $32,000 a year are ridiculous. Who will drive 64 miles in the toll lanes every day? The typical driver's trip is expected to cost $7 to $9. That's expensive enough that most people won't use them every day.

But that's the point. When you need to be somewhere on time and $7 will land you a better job, a new client, or get you to your kid's soccer game, it's worth it.

There are also worries that when the I-95/395 HOV lanes are expanded to three lanes, they won't be safe. The lanes will be 11 feet wide, just like lanes in Los Angeles. There will be a 12-foot shoulder and emergency pull-off areas. Transportation engineers are quite comfortable with this.

Then there are concerns about a foreign company managing the project. Bottom line: The project will create jobs in DC-Virginia. Foreign companies can't pick up the pavement and move it to Australia.

The project is self-supporting and the additional toll lane will add 50 percent more capacity without taking any homes via eminent domain. In this time of massive deficits, the region should embrace a transportation project that pays for itself.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation, where he has advised the previous four presidential administrations. Shirley Ybarra is senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation and former Secretary of Transportation for Virginia. This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner. Reason Foundation's transportation research and commentary is here.

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  1. Why are they still called “high occupancy” toll lanes, if anyone who pays can drive in them, even with only one passenger? And how would it reduce congestion, if fewer people end up using it than before, when it was “free” for carpoolers?

    The easiest way to reduce traffic congestion is just to take off the high occupancy requirement, and let anyone use any lane.

  2. [liberal think]
    But think of all the poor people who, stuck in traffic, will look longingly at that flowing lane and feel bad about themselves. Think of all the evil rich people who can afford to take those lanes regularly…they’ll be laughing (and maybe throwing rocks) at the poor people. There will be a permanent underclass who will be stuck in the conventional lanes…never able to move up to the fast lane…
    [/liberal think]

  3. Are I-80 & 90 going to be extended to D.C. with the toll money?

  4. my hatred of traffic and hatred of poor people have finally found common ground

    suck it poor people, IMMA FLYING DELTA DEMON!!!

  5. [politician think]
    I never get a ticket from driving in HOV lanes because I show my Congressman ID, so I’d prefer they remain my personal driving lane, thank you very much.
    [/politician think]

  6. @ NAL

    LOL. Perfect summary of the way some thumbsuckers like to think – although I wish people would be more honest and call it “Biting my nose to spite my face” rather than “liberal”, especially since the only way to make this really viable and profitable is to make using the roads as (relatively) affordable as buying a venti mocchachino at Starbucks.

  7. NAL, this guy beat you to it.

    Let’s imagine the new lanes are built and the new tolls are in operation. You’re a single mother working in a downtown law office part time because your hours have been cut as one of the firm’s economy measures. Just about noon, you get a call from the day-care center, where your 3-year-old is running a high fever. You decide to give up two badly needed hours of work to pick her up early, hoping she won’t need a visit to the pediatrician because the state no longer funds healthcare for the working poor. About the same time you leave, the firm’s managing partner heads out for lunch and a round of golf at his club.

    Despite the time of day, L.A.’s freeways are inexplicably clogged — virtual gridlock for no apparent reason. The new toll lanes, however, are moving freely. For the senior partner, it’s a no-brainer. He pays the $1.40-a-mile toll without a first, let alone a second, thought and arrives at his club early enough for a Bloody Mary before lunch. Our single mom, however, looks at the bumper-to-bumper traffic around her, glances over at the freely moving toll lane and has to do the mental math to decide whether getting to her child in less than 90 minutes is worth being late with this month’s rent.

    What the heck, she’s already disadvantaged by the status quo, so what’s another hour of anguish?

    A society that can rationalize the imposition of such pain doesn’t need to worry over how to define equity; it needs to worry about its soul.

  8. He pays the $1.40-a-mile toll without a first, let alone a second, thought and arrives at his club early enough for a Bloody Mary before lunch.

    This might be the best fat-cat hating sentence of the year. Pure brilliance.

  9. What would be the problem with all roads being privately-owned toll roads? Eliminate gas taxes which allegedly go to road repair, and you might actually pay less to use them than you do in taxes!

    If you knew you had to pay to use a road, wouldn’t this be incentive to carpool? Sounds to me like the “Greenies” should be pro-toll roads!

    And, as a bonus, your money would be used on the roads you use every day instead of going to fund roads that you’ve never even heard of!

    Isn’t privatization fun?!

  10. Craig,

    I think the lanes will still be free to high occupancy vehicles, but anyone can drive in them if they pay the toll. Thus, it is either high occupancy OR toll.

    I have a reverse commute (Home in Falls Church to work in Bethesda) on I-95, but my trip home still often takes 2-3x as long as my trip to work. I can’t imagine how bad it is for people making the opposite commute.

    Preach it, freeforall. There is also a lot more incentive to get stalled cars and wrecks off the road quickly with toll roads, and for tractor-trailers to plan their trips to avoid rush hour if you have peak pricing.

  11. So if the toll didn’t exist, she’d drive the HOV lane by herself risking a fine? WTF? That traffic exists no matter what the left lane is designated for.

    Reality is, the rich guy traveling alone in the toll lane who was not eligible for the HOV lane (without risking a missed tee time) just took one car out of traffic for the poor single mom AND maybe made it possible to lessen her tax burden at the gas pump by subsidizing her part of the road.

    (OK, maybe it’s a little naive of me to expect gas taxes to be reduced if tolls pay for roads, but still it should work that way.)

  12. Warty, the other side of that post could be the managing partner is headed out for a drink because the company he worked so hard to build is about to go under and he will lose the life savings he put into building it.

    The single mom gets another job, maybe even making more money.

    I love how all “fat cats” have no problems in these mems. Running and keeping a company solvent is easy don’t you know?

  13. If you knew you had to pay to use a road, wouldn’t this be incentive to carpool? Sounds to me like the “Greenies” should be pro-toll roads!

    And, as a bonus, your money would be used on the roads you use every day instead of going to fund roads that you’ve never even heard of!

    But “greenies” are the ones who love to use the free roads on their trips to wine country or backpacking in the middle of nowhere and if they get trapped or lost they expect free rescue services to save their asses. They love to use state force to subsidize their hobbies.

  14. Craig / Kent,

    Kent is right, it’s because they are open to either ‘High Occupancy’ vehicles (which used to be 3 or 4, but now is just driver and passenger) for no additional cost, and single occupancy vehicles who pay the toll.

    Toll roads are a better and better solution, especially as newer technology allows people to drive on them without special preparation or toll plazas that impede traffic flow. A new toll road in Maryland will have access for pre-registered EZ-Pass (a regional RFID tag) users, as well as video detection of non-EZPass vehicles for a slightly higher (but not punitively so) toll. On top of this, the road will use congestion pricing so that as demand goes up, so does the price for that patch of road you want to occupy.

    People always love to complain when new free stuff isn’t provided for them, but the fact of the matter is that roads cost money to provide, and the gas tax just doesn’t provide enough money to cover both operating and maintenance expenses, much less capital improvement costs (especially as road construction costs escalate due to new regulations, especially environmental ones. They’re good to have, they just make it more expensive). Knowing that a road will provide toll revenue to pay off bonds and operating expenses can make a big difference in whether it gets built or not.

  15. Nick,

    My favorite story about a ‘greenie’ is when I was wearing my ‘Pave The Planet’ joke t-shirt. Some guy actually got upset at the shirt, as he was about to get in his Mercedes, claiming it was a horrible idea. He then proceeded to explain that he drove over an hour each way to work and home, just so he could ‘live near nature’. The irony of that totally escaped him. I let it drop, but wanted to say “You’re the reason that we’re paving the planet!”

  16. “Green” is the new “red”. It’s just another way of imposing communism by different means.

  17. Bullshit, spambot. After the partner got done playing golf, he kicked a puppy.

  18. After the partner got done playing golf, he kicked a puppy.

    Kicked? That’s what a 3 wood is for.

  19. “What would be the problem with all roads being privately-owned toll roads?”

    What if I have to get to work, I’m broke and I don’t get paid for 2 more days?

  20. Or what If I have to rush my kid to the hospital? If a $3.00 toll road gate is keeping me from getting there because I only have $2.50 in cash and the darn thing does’t take plastic, I’m gonna be mighty pissed.

  21. It waould also mean that as an American, I couldn’t go anywhere without paying a little cash to someone. You know, just like in Nigeria.

  22. They’ve converted the HOV lane on a portion of I-95 Northbound from downtown Miami to the Golden Glades Interchange (which connects to the rest of the major roads in Miami) into a toll road. It’s about an 8 mile stretch. The toll changes dynamically, to anywhere between $0.25 and $6.00 for the entire stretch, depending on traffic congestion (I’ve never seen it above $3, it’s usually $2.50 or lower, even during rush hour). Works great. There were a bunch of complaints beforehand, but they’ve died down. They’re now working on the southbound portion, and then next project is to extend it up to Fort Lauderdale.

  23. Oh yeah: One thing to add, the Miami road ( doesn’t have toll booths. It’s all done on the electronic toll system.

  24. As a Californio I’m unused to such roads, I always get in trouble when I visit the East Coast, Denver, Houston, etc. The problem? Having to pay to get OFF the road! While you are on the road, the tollbooths are manned by human beings. They can make change. But the exits don’t have humans, so you need exact change.

    Grumble, grumble.

  25. Gunboat Diplomacy,

    “What if I have to get to work, I’m broke and I don’t get paid for 2 more days?”

    Sounds like poor planning on your part.

    “Or what If I have to rush my kid to the hospital?”

    Sounds like poor family planning on your part. Nobody forced you to have kids.

  26. I had an instance where I had exact change but there was no automatic coin drop with gate. There was just a booth (no gate) where a person was supposed to be but was not there to take my quarter. I drove through and received a $30.25 bill in the mail with a picture of my rear plate. I sent them a check for $.25 and I disputed the charge on the back of the form. They sent me another letter telling me I was off the hook.

    My brother in law who was with me at the time and works for the NY DMV told me even if they insist I pay the fine not to pay it because NY will not take my license for failure to pay NJ fines.

    Who wants to bet there will be subsidies for the poor to all get EZ passes?

  27. “Or what If I have to rush my kid to the hospital?”

    Call an ambulance.

  28. “Call an ambulance.”

    That did cross my mind.

    BTW I have no kids and make lots of money, but the Nigerian angle doesn’t seem to illicit snark. It’s not really a free country if you have to fork over cash to a bunch of trolls at every bridge.

  29. and for tractor-trailers to plan their trips to avoid rush hour if you have peak pricing.

    Cause we all know those darn truckers sit in traffic jams just to piss off the 4 wheelers.

    Truck drivers get a load on at whatever time their loading appointment sets. They are often given an exact route by dispatch as well as an off load time and date. It is nearly impossible go through several large cities on a trip without hitting at least one at rush hour. Trips are usually dispatched with a few hours buffer between loading and unloading. The shortest cushion I ever had was 3 hours in a trip from Hazlehurst Ga to Portland Or.

    Long haul truck drivers generally get paid by the mile. It really sucks sitting in stop and go traffic. When it took me Six and a half hours to go from Oxnard to Indio without a break, it wasn’t by design, but it was necessary to get them cantaloupes to Publix in Jacksonville on time.

  30. Point understood, brotherben. I have no issues with trucks or their drivers. I feel bad for truckers stuck on the Beltway during rush hour because I know they get paid by the mile.

    If tractor trailers had to pay tolls in accordance with the number of axles and/or weight, and peak pricing, companies would have to pay more for tighter delivery schedules. With peak pricing, traffic is going to be less concentrated as some drivers (of cars and trucks) elect to change their schedules to avoid rush hour traffic. Some truckers may have flexibility in their schedules, and others may not. Some of those who have the flexibility may opt to schedule their stops to avoid rush hour. Of course, that is difficult to do on the coasts due to the number of large cities – you are always going to hit someone’s rush hour. It is easier in the Midwest and West where cities are farther apart.

  31. It’s not really a free country if you have to fork over cash to a bunch of trolls at every bridge.

    You’re just used to roads being “free”. Historically, that was hardly the case.

  32. “You’re just used to roads being “free”. Historically, that was hardly the case.”

    Somebody go back and get a shitload of dimes!

  33. Nick, re: subsidizing EZ Passes…

    For one, they’re currently free. They just take the setup time and account pre-payment.

    The other option, that I mentioned above, uses the video detection as a secondary method not to be a ‘gotcha’ but for those who don’t have EZPass accounts and transponders. They pay slightly more to cover the processing and mailing, but not on the level of a punitive fine. This is becoming more prevalent on new toll facilities, to get rid of toll booths.

    EZPass and video detection can be on overhead gantries that don’t impede the flow of traffic.

  34. “It’s not really a free country if you have to fork over cash to a bunch of trolls at every bridge.”

    So, by your logic:

    It’s not really a free country if …
    … you have to fork over cash to get food
    … you have to fork over cash to get a place to live
    … you have to fork over cash to get gas for your car

    You’re not enslaved just because others pass on their costs of doing business to you in the form of a price or toll.

  35. Can somebody help me out here?

    Some people around here claim that our road system, or at least the federal interstate system, is largely subsidy free and is paid for with the gasoline tax. Now, that gasoline tax is $.18/gallon, or about one cent for each mile driven.

    Now, the “private” turnpike that I use occassionally costs about $.04 per mile (plus a $.25 access fee) AND recieves a $.0025 per mile subsidy via a portion of the gas taxes collected.

    In that case, which of the following is true?

    A: The federal government is over four times as efficient at providing interstates than the private market

    B: There are a lot more subsidies for the federal system than just the gasoline tax.

    C: Some combination of the above

    And please note, the turnpike about which I am talking runs almost entirely through fairly flat, rural areas and skirts any major cities by quite some distance. I can’t imagine a CHEAPER interstate, and am absolutely certain that many federal interstates go through much more challenging or valuable land.

  36. This is a good idea and is full of common sense. So naturally, this is exactly why the politicians will not support it.

  37. Oh dear, Chad’s back, arguing with the libertarian in his fevered mind.

  38. Wow–what a singularly stupid idea.
    Exorbitant gas taxes, among other taxes & fees, are there for the purpose of funding the building of new roads/lanes. These folks think it’s a good idea to charge people again to fund something they’ve already (over)paid for?
    These people must be denizens of the Northeast. Nobody else I know of would think such an idiotic proposal a good idea.

  39. Where’s the due diligence in this story? HOT lane is for Tolls AND High Occupancy vehicles, so you have added toll payers to the already bogged down HOV lane. Furthermore these public/private partnerships are rife with corruption. The HOT lane agreement for 95/495 in VA has guaranteed revenue benchmarks for the private firm, which happened to be based on projections of $20 toll per 12 mile HOT lane trip. I travel this route EVERY morning and even at 55mph the time savings would be less than 10-15 minutes. So they are counting on people with a time value of $80-120 per hour (after taxes) paying these routes? I’d put my money on these projections falling short. Doesn’t matter though because the company is guaranteed this revenue by the county. Look at the nearby Dulles Toll road that they claim loses money each year for an example of a money losing venture. Also don’t forget about the eminent domain abuse and waste of space in putting 4 rows of traffic with medians, where they only need two, after all we have to separate the payers from non-payers.

  40. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets..

  41. Wow what GENIOUS!!! Wow!!! Poole should get a damn Nobel freaking prize!! The Libertarian Think Tank isn’t empty!! WoW!!!!!

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