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Virginia Hot Lanes Debate: Are They Just A Temporary Fix?

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A rendering of what the High Occupancy Toll lanes on Interstate-95 in Northern Virginia will look like when complete.
Courtesy of the Virginia Department of Transportation
A rendering of what the High Occupancy Toll lanes on Interstate-95 in Northern Virginia will look like when complete.

When the express lanes projects on the Interstate-495 Capital Beltway and Interstate-95 in Northern Virginia are ready for commuters, they will be designed to serve a dual purpose: encourage carpooling by giving HOV-3 vehicles a free ride, and reduce congestion by also giving motorists the option of paying a premium toll to escape the usually jammed non-toll lanes.

The first of those goals is attainable; the second is not, according to Rachel Weinberger, an expert on drivers' behavior. She believes expanding two of the busiest highways in the Washington metropolitan region will produce the unintended consequence of more congestion in the long term. 

“The biggest potential problem is that we're building more roads that will provide very short-term congestion relief and will cause other kinds of traffic and travel problems," says Weinberger, the co-author of Auto Motives: Understanding Car Use Behavior.

There is little evidence to suggest expanding highways will solve a region's congestion woes, she adds.

"All of the research shows that when you add capacity to highways, rather than relieving congestion in the long run, you actually create more congestion in other parts of the system,” she says.  In short, wider highways induce more traffic, she explains. Those new users ultimately have to exit the highway somewhere, producing more traffic on secondary roads where expansion is not possible. 

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) attended the groundbreaking of the I-95 HOT lanes project Tuesday, touting the improved connections it will allow between I-95 and the Beltway. 

"If you can't move people and you can't move goods quickly to market, you are not going to get businesses coming here and you aren't going to get tourists. It's going to impair the quality of life for all of us," he said.

When asked if the state is becoming overly reliant on highway projects, McDonnell pointed to the state's efforts to promote mass transit projects like the Silver line and express bus service on the new HOV lanes.

"But I think we have to realize [people] here in Northern Virginia have a great affinity for the automobile," he said. 

Backers of the express lanes projects are relying on drivers' willingness to pay pricey tolls for a faster ride as the factor that will reduce congestion. They are also calling the possible increase in carpooling a win-win. In Weinberger's view, there will enough new carpoolers and toll payers to provide the appearance of relief, but it won’t last.

"We think that the easy solution is to build more lanes and then we won’t have so much traffic, but I am sure the Beltway has been expanded several times and there continues to be traffic," she says.

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