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HOT & Bothered

High-Occupancy Toll lanes: another nightmare from the suburbs-hating traffic planners

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Springfield, Va.
Even the mighty GPS cannot save you from the Springfield mixing bowl. Located seven miles south of Washington, D.C., this is the confluence of three major highways—I-95, I-395, and I-495—along with several smaller county roads. A hideous tangle of cloverleafs, bridges, and flyovers, the mixing bowl is a traffic factory with so many lanes, exits, and merges that its dysfunction has earned it a Wikipedia page. Trying to make your way through with GPS guidance alone offers perhaps a 50-50 chance of success; the only sure means of navigation is hard-won experience.

Dave Clegg

Dave Clegg

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the intersecting highways have both normal lanes and special lanes. The north-south axis (I-95 and I-395) consists of an eight-lane divided highway, with four normal lanes flowing in each direction. Between them sit two special lanes, which are sometimes reserved for High-Occupancy Vehicles (HOV), carrying three or more people, and sometimes open to everyone. The special lanes reverse direction depending on the time and day. Sometimes they flow north, and sometimes south.

The east-west highway (the I-495 loop, or Capital Beltway) has its own special lanes, too. They are designated High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. If your vehicle has three or more passengers and you’ve leased a special kind of E-ZPass transponder, you may use these lanes for free. HOT lane cars with fewer than three passengers or only a regular E-ZPass must pay a toll. This toll varies depending on traffic. You never know how much it will be until you get to the on-ramp.

As I said, it’s all quite confusing. The mixing bowl confronts drivers with any number of what transportation engineers call “decision nodes.” Do you have the right E-ZPass? Which way is the traffic moving? How much is the toll today? Will the special lanes have an exit at the place where you want to get off? (Not all exits are available from both the main and special lanes, and the omissions are nowhere marked for drivers.) And all of this excludes the question of the traffic, which, by the numbers, is as heavy as anything you’ll find east of California.

The heavy traffic is the reason all of those “special” lanes were built in the first place. And more of them are coming. In the next few months, the north-south HOV lanes will be expanded and converted to HOT.

HOT lanes are all the rage in transportation engineering. Over the last few years, they’ve mushroomed across the country: from I-85 in Georgia to I-95 north of Miami; from I-394 and I-35 in Minnesota to I-15 in Utah. California is lousy with them, of course: The I-10, the I-15, and the I-110 all have HOT lanes. There’s even a HOT lane on a lowly state road in California, SR-237. That’s outside of San Jose, and the toll there fluctuates between 30 cents and $6.00 for the privilege of driving a four-mile stretch of road. All told, there are 21 HOT lane projects up and running in America today. More are in the works.

HOT lanes have a small, but potent, constituency. Progressives, who reflexively support any measure that makes living in the suburbs more costly—their ultimate aim being to nudge people into dense, urban cores—see HOT lanes as a check on suburban sprawl. On the other side, libertarians view HOT lanes as a perfect instrument of free-market economics, allowing consumers to put a dollar value on their time by choosing to pay their way out of traffic—and in turn fostering smaller government by offloading public responsibility for roadways onto private companies. Both sides are, to a certain extent, correct. HOT lanes are wondrously useful to divergent ideological agendas.

The question of whether or not they work is another matter.

Traffic has been confounding American transportation planners for better than half a century, ever since the interstate highway system was born under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Interstates not only connected distant urban areas, but made the creation of outer-ring suburbs (and later exurbs) possible. Highways had the effect of making high concentrations of jobs (in the cities) accessible to lower-cost housing (in the suburbs). You could plausibly argue that as much as the birth control pill or television, it was highways that—for both good and ill—made the American way of life possible in the late twentieth century. 

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