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Last weekend, the 495 Express Lanes opened along the Virginia side of the Capital Beltway. The new “high occupancy toll lanes” — commonly called HOT Lanes — were built by private companies, which will collect revenue and set rates to control congestion. Many transportation planners say it’s a glimpse of how many major road projects will be funded and operated in the future. But the arrangement, and some early safety questions, have raised concerns among skeptics.
- Martin Di Caro transportation reporter, WAMU
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, grading colleges and universities, George Washington University is dropped from an influential college ranking list for inflating student data. We explore the information colleges share and what they try to keep away from prospective students.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, HOT lanes come to the Capital Beltway. This week, commuters in northern Virginia have a new option for getting to work, high occupancy toll lanes, new lanes along a crowded stretch of 495 that promise drivers a quick commute if they're willing to pay a premium of $3 to $6.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMany people believe it's a glimpse of our commuting future, a privately-built and operated system that charges different rates depending on real-time traffic conditions. But some say road building is and should remain a government responsibility and they worry that the new system will have unforeseen consequences.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss all of this is Martin Di Caro, transportation reporter with WAMU 88.5. Martin, always a pleasure.
MR. MARTIN DI CAROKojo, good to see you and Happy Thanksgiving Week.
NNAMDIHappy Thanksgiving Week to you also.
CAROGet that out of the way now.
NNAMDIThere are all sorts of long-term questions raised by this new HOT lane concept, but the system had to deal with a more immediate challenge, driver confusion which led to at least six crashes. You've actually done a ride-along with the folks who operate the system. Is this just a confusing layout or is this something we're going to get used to?
CAROI think the overwhelming majority of people had no issue entering the HOT lanes yesterday and over the weekend. There were six crashes, almost all of them were at the southern-most entrance and that's where I went on a ride-along with the Virginia State Police, southern-most entrance of this 14-mile corridor when you come off of 395, the Springfield Interchange. You head north on 495.
CAROI was paying attention. I had no problem whatsoever recognizing that at one point, about a mile later, two new lanes widened to left. The highway does not split. You just get two new lanes to the left. But not everyone pays attention when they're driving. Some people are on the phone or watching movies or just...
NNAMDIListening to music?
CARO...or it's the morning and you maybe haven't been keeping up on the news and now suddenly the highway looks totally different. What happened here?
CAROSo, okay, that's understandable to a degree. What is not understandable is folks stopping on a highway. This is not an exit or entrance ramp, stopping on a highway and backing up to get out of the toll lanes or swerving quickly. Now we've all been there where we're on the highway, we're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," and we're all, you know, trying not to fall asleep and then, all of a sudden, oh, my exit and you try to cross three lanes over.
CAROPeople were doing those fast swerves. There were six crashes, three non-life threatening injuries. Here's the deal, folks, your life is worth more than a few dollars for a toll. And at this point, the tolls are in the $1.50 - $2 range, dynamically priced. I know we're going to get into that. Just keep going, you can pay the toll without penalty later on, online or by calling 495 express lanes, the operators and sign up for E-ZPass, but please do not do any wild maneuvers to get out of the toll lanes. It's unnecessary.
NNAMDIBacking up on a highway, yes, that would be a wild maneuver. You can tell us your experience if you've already had one in the HOT lanes by calling 800-433-8850 or by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Would you pay $3 or $6 to get a congestion-free route to work? 800-433-8850. Martin, the idea of HOT lanes has been around for quite a while, but this is the first time it's been implemented in this region.
NNAMDIOne of the basic ideas underpinning this system is dynamic prices where the rates charged will actually change in real time depending on the level of congestion. How will that work?
CAROThis is a novel idea and this is a big story. I'm glad you're having me on today. This is a new highway in the metropolitan Washington area. When was the last time we had a new highway?
CAROThis is the largest expansion of the Beltway since the system was completed in the 1960s. This is not designed to eliminate traffic congestion. What this does is give commuters a predictable, reliable ride when they choose it. So during weekends, overnights, maybe there won't be that much traffic in the regular lanes, the general purpose lanes. There's no need for you to hop on the express lanes.
CAROBut it's a Tuesday and you just left work and you need to be at the doctor in 25 minutes. And 495, as it usually is, is backed up, coming, you know, down through Maryland or if you get off, you know, Tysons Corner, that area. You can hop on the express lanes and pay what is called the dynamically-priced toll.
CAROThis is not a variable toll where it's a certain price at certain times each day. Dynamically-priced tolls are based on the amount of volume on the express lanes. By law, the operators of the express lanes are required to keep traffic moving at 45 miles an hour. So the more volume on those express lanes the higher the toll, like demand pricing and there's no cap to how high those tolls can go.
CAROThe average toll would be $3 to $6 because it all, you know, there's no way to give somebody one figure. It depends on how long of the highway, how much of the highway you travel, how much volume is on it. So the highway is also designed to be used two, three times a week, that's from the operators of the highway itself. They're not expecting people to use this every day.
CAROSo, right now, if you were -- I was on the highway yesterday, you know, it was $1.50, $2. If there's going to be a day, a large travel day, this Friday or this Thursday or Wednesday with Thanksgiving week, there's a very good chance when people get out of work tomorrow, 495 is going to be backed up and then we're going to see where the tolls are going to go.
CAROBecause as I mentioned, novel idea, the operators aren't quite sure, they're feeling their way through this.
NNAMDIHow do you pay?
CAROIt's all electronic, it's E-ZPass. That's -- you have -- that's why we were saying before if you get on the express lanes by accident and you don't have E-ZPass, don't get off them that way, backing up. Just keep going and get off at the next exit and then pay the toll online. You have to sign up for E-ZPass. To do this, HOV-3 rides free and those folks should get the E-ZPass Flex transponder so when they have HOV-3 in their car, they can flip a button and they'll get a toll-free ride.
NNAMDIWe're talking to Martin Di Caro, transportation reporter here at WAMU 88.5 about the new HOT lanes in Virginia and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you used the new HOT lanes yet? What was your experience? Call us at 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow
NNAMDIMartin, the system was built by two companies, Transurban and Fluor. Is that how that's pronounced?
NNAMDIFluor Transurban, they spent two billion dollars. Presumably, they expect to make a lot more than that. A lot of people, if not most, think of road-building as one of the core responsibilities of government. Why is a private company doing this?
CAROFluor Transurban put up $1.5 billion. They have to pay the debt back on that so they're expecting a profit. The State of Virginia put up $409 million. The reason why a private entity is partnered in Virginia as one of the leaders in the country at what are called P3s, public-private-partnerships, is because the State of Virginia did not have $2 billion to build the road.
CARONow there's a debate over whether they should be building more highways. They decided that, yes, they needed more road capacity on this heavily-traveled corridor. The road doesn't get built without the public, private partnership. Now that raises the question of, well, why don't we have revenues to build these roads on our own?
CARO$2 billion is a lot of money. There are a lot of demands for infrastructure in this area so Virginia entered a P3 with Fluor Transurban. They put up 75 percent of the financing. They expect to get a profit on their investment. So the road doesn't get built without that.
CAROThe tolls go to Fluor Transurban for the next 75 years. Virginia gets a new road out of the deal and hopefully alleviated traffic congestion in that corridor anyway. Now opponents of these types of projects say, well, first of all, Virginia loses out on the toll revenue. That's how they would put it.
CAROAnd you're not going to do anything about the bottlenecks. This project, it's in and of itself beyond the corridor so if you're traveling north on 495, you get past the Dulles toll road where the expansion ends, you go to the American Legion Bridge, there's still probably going to be the same level of congestion there, going into Maryland.
NNAMDI2087, that's my calculation, 75 years from now.
CAROYeah, there are some stipulations in the contract that would allow Virginia to receive some toll revenue if they pass certain levels. So Virginia might be able to share in some of that revenue.
NNAMDIHere is Alan, in Alexandria, Va. Alan, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
ALANHi Kojo, I just got off the HOT lanes this morning and this afternoon and I had a great experience. I think it was well-marked. I saved myself about 12 minutes each time. The only downfall was once I finished the lane, I got to the American Legion again and that's where the bottleneck was, at the American Legion, trying to get into Bethesda.
ALANI thought it was a great experience, you know. I didn't have any problem at all.
CAROCoincidentally, the Virginia Department of Transportation released a press release today announcing they are going to study crossings at the Potomac River and that is a controversial issue, whether or not there should be another crossing over the Potomac. As this gentleman just pointed out, he got to the American Legion Bridge and he ran into the same old congestion.
CAROSo the bottlenecks get pushed down the road and there's also what smart growth advocates call the phenomenon of induced traffic. If you build it, they will come.
NNAMDIAlan, thank you for your call. We move on to Peter in Frederick, Md. Peter, your turn.
PETERI was on the HOT lane from Springfield to the American Legion Bridge this morning about 6:30 and there were two areas of bottleneck. One was right at the beginning of the HOT lanes when people were trying to avoid getting on them and there was a good bit of a slowdown before we ever got to the beginning of the HOT lanes. And then the second lane was exactly what your previous caller just said and that was getting off at the American Legion Bridge.
PETERThere was not a very gradual transition there and there was another bottleneck once we got past that immediate transition and then it picked up again.
NNAMDIWell, the first one is clearly avoidable. To HOT lane or not to HOT lane is a decision that shouldn't take you forever. The latter, I guess, will be a more difficult proposition. We also got an email from Max in Bristow, Va. who just got off the HOT lanes and he had a great experience. Max says it was definitely worth the expense. Peter, thank you for your call.
NNAMDIBut there is this also Martin. This we got from an emailer, Eric, who says, "Not so fast, the left lane of the non-express lanes in the loop goes away while the two lanes of the new express lanes start up, that's right, a lane in the middle goes away. That's where the accidents have been, where the lane goes away. Yes, yes, the lane went away before the express lanes were opened and there were cones or barrels or whatever they were up."
NNAMDI"We had accidents there too. But now we have nothing showing that the lane goes away until it does. Stupid design, the lane to go away should have been to the right like any other merge."
CAROThat's a tough one to tackle. I'd have to go back out on the road. Again, when I was out on the road yesterday, there wasn't a lot of traffic and, again, I was going into that ready and aware and paying attention. I honestly did not think it was a difficult transition to make, but apparently it has been for some folks and that is understandable if you're used to just driving the same road every single day and then suddenly it changes on you.
NNAMDIPeople expect the merge to be someplace else. And we got an email from Robin who says, "Hello, six accidents in three days at the same point, that's clearly a design issue. As my father used to say no matter how carefully you idiot-proof things, there will always be a bigger and better idiot."
CAROWell, Kojo, if I can point out, the DOT and Transurban are making improvements to that area. They're doing some more striping, some more signage. They're increasing the merge area, so they're working on this.
NNAMDIIt seems like most transportation experts expect that these HOT lanes will expand options available to commuters, but it's not entirely clear what kind of impact the HOT lanes will have on the rest of the area's roadways. For example, will traffic increase on some of the feeder roads as people adjust their commutes?
CAROAgain, the phenomena of induced traffic and growth, at the 495 express lanes unveiling last week, somebody representing Tysons Corner businesses said this is going to be a great project, great highway expansion for businesses that are going to be opening up in Tysons Corner in the future. Well, what are those businesses going to do? They're going to attract more drivers there and once folks understand, word gets around that this is a faster way to get through a corridor, yes, there will be more people going through there.
CARODuring the course of this project I have interviewed experts on transportation and highway expansion. And one women who coauthored a book "Auto Motives: Understanding Car Use Behavior," Rachel Weinberger told me that over time the cars that leave the regular purpose lanes to take the express lanes, well those cars will be backfill on the regular purpose lanes eventually and you'll still have, you know, heavy congestion through that area.
NNAMDIAnd one more time to clarify for Susan in McClain, Va. Susan, your turn.
SUSANHi. I was -- I've been trying to pay attention to all this new system and in fact I just got my new easy pass flex. But I haven't had occasion to use the express lanes yet. It's not clear to me how you know, or when you know how much it's going to cost.
CAROThere are signs.
SUSANThere are signs so when you get on that's the price you're going to pay no matter how long you stay on it?
CAROYes. Yes, they can change the price every 15 minutes and you get the price that you entered on, if that makes sense. They can't...
NNAMDIThere are automated signs that update in real time, Susan.
CAROBut if you're on the highway for a while and the toll spikes while you're on it you'll pay the price that it was showing when you entered the lanes.
SUSANOh, that's what I was -- that makes sense. That I didn't know what happened if it changed while I was on the road.
CAROIt's not a bait and switch.
SUSANThat would be a bummer. Okay. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Susan. Martin Di Caro, thank you very much for your time.
CAROAll right. We have no time to talk about the gas tax I take it.
NNAMDIWell, talk about the gas tax.
CAROOkay. Well, you know, we were talking about long term big picture transportation funding. P3s cannot be used in every instance. As a matter of fact, most people...
NNAMDIWhat are P3s?
CAROPublic private partnership.
CAROSorry about that for the lingo there, Kojo. And this is a public private partnership. And most folks will tell you that, you know, as for any state's transportation portfolio, public private partnership makes up maybe 10 percent of what they're doing. They can only be used where there's going to be a revenue stream, right, where you can toll the road. Well, in our area, free roads have been the norm. Well, that's changing but there's going to be a limit to how much people are going to tolerate tolls. And roads aren't free, bridges aren't free, rail lines aren't free.
CAROThe State of Virginia has not increased its gasoline tax since 25 years. It's still 17 cents a gallon. Federal government has not increased the gas tax since 1993, 18 cents a gallon. Now dollar for dollar raising the gas tax to fund transportation projects isn't the best way of doing it because we have increased fuel efficiency and the escalating cost of construction materials. But still that's not a reason to avoid raising it, at least for the supporters of that possible possibility. It's not even being proposed at the state or federal level at this time.
NNAMDIA future conversation on raising the gas tax in Virginia, which Martin Di Caro will undoubtedly be a part of. He is our transportation reporter here at WAMU 88.5. Martin, thank you so much for coming.
CAROAll right, Kojo. Thanks for the last bit there.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, George Washington University is dropped from an influential college ranking list. Grading colleges and universities is what we'll be talking about. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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