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HOT-lane hair-pulling

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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 eheyl@tribweb.com).

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