| Opinion/The Review

Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

HOT-lane hair-pulling

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

Letters home ...

Traveling abroad for personal, educational or professional reasons?

Why not share your impressions — and those of residents of foreign countries about the United States — with Trib readers in 150 words?

The world's a big place. Bring it home with Letters Home.

Contact Colin McNickle (412-320-7836 or

Daily Photo Galleries

Saturday, April 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Jonathan V. Last is a journalist, author and senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He spoke to the Trib regarding the efficacy of high-occupancy toll lanes, whose tolls vary depending on how many motorists are using them in what is referred to as “congestion pricing.”

Q: Have HOT lanes been proven to be effective?

A: It depends. The first question is, are they effective on their own terms? Here the evidence is mixed.

There's some research which suggests they can be efficient. That's economist-speak for “they move traffic well.”

But in the real world, they often turn out to be much less efficient than the modeling predicts. For example, the new Virginia HOT lanes outside D.C. were projected to move an average 66,000 vehicles per day. After more than a year, the biggest single day saw them move 46,975 vehicles; on average, they're operating 40 percent under projections.

The second question is, are they effective compared with the alternatives? Again, it depends.

HOT lanes seem to be more efficient than HOV lanes because most of them allow HOV traffic, but then use a toll to soak up any unused capacity. But they often seem to be less effective than lanes which are open to everyone.

Q: The Virginia HOT lanes project initially was pitched as a public-private partnership. Did it turn out that way?

A: Sort of. For starters, the company which built the HOT lanes was the only bidder on the project. By the time the lanes were built, that company had spent $350 million of its own money. The state of Virginia spent $409 million of its own money. And then Virginia and the federal government kicked in $1.2 billion of taxpayer-funded sweetheart loans.

At the end of the day, the private company has a lot less skin in the game than the taxpayers do. Yet they get all of the profits, if there are any. This is every capitalist's dream: privatized gains but socialized losses.

Q: Is it safe to say then that HOT lanes are turning out to be far more beneficial to their developers than to motorists?

A: In the short run, certainly. The companies that build them make a lot of money in the construction. But in the long run, we don't really know.

Spain was on the cutting edge of HOT lane construction. And because the concept didn't work over there, either, today most of the companies which have built them have gone bankrupt — leaving the state holding the bag, not to mention all the debt from unpaid loans.

Q: Is there any way for Virginia motorists to determine their potential time savings before entering a HOT lane and having to pay a toll?

A: Nope. Imagine: You're sailing down the highway and it's all clear on both the main lanes and the HOT lanes. You get to the HOT entrance and there's a price — maybe it's $3.95 — but you have no idea what that means. Maybe the main lanes jam up four miles ahead. Or maybe they're clear the whole way. That posted price means nothing to you as a consumer.

At the end of the day, they aren't selling time. They're selling a lifestyle. If you're the kind of person who can afford $3.95 to avoid even the chance of traffic, then HOT is for you. In that sense, HOT is like a luxury tax — except that it's a luxury tax on a good that the rest of us all paid to create.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.




Show commenting policy

Most-Read Stories

  1. Steelers accomplish mission to get younger, faster on defense
  2. Bubble players get last chance to impress Steelers
  3. Asking price for Penguins franchise said to be at a record $750M
  4. 4-year-old transplant recipient Angelo Giorno from Derry on life support, family says
  5. American to halt 2 direct routes from Pittsburgh International
  6. Western Pennsylvania schools’ denial of access to roofers prompts suit
  7. Locke struggles again early, Pirates lose again in Milwaukee
  8. Movement along the offensive line continues for Pitt as opener approaches
  9. 1 killed, another injured in early-morning Clairton shooting
  10. South Fayette native looks forward to competing in Miss America Pageant
  11. Police: Woman faked Mt. Pleasant robbery