Expecting a welcome reception from the public by installing High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on midday traffic disasters like interstate 95 is just oblivious optimism. The idea is too depressingly real and American for social critics, who rant and rave like Arthur Miller antagonists. This is how it works: if you don’t want to wait in traffic, you can pay a hefty toll for a first class ticket to efficiency. HOT lanes have already been installed in highways across the nation and advocates claim that they have been viewed as congestion liberators. That’s news to a lot of researchers. Agonizing over tolls, however, is nothing new.
-image courtesy of WJLA.com
Perhaps that’s why The Virginia Department of Transportation saved its spot in line for a $1.2 billion federal grant, awarded this past December. We can’t all stop driving. Any promise of “efficient” alternatives will be greeted like everything else is on I-95’s capital stretch – with a punch at the steering wheel and a middle finger.
The Capital Beltway HOT Lanes Project includes additional elements that were tacked onto the projected $1.9 billion dollar overhaul. These elements include plans to bring the regional High Occupancy Vehicle lane (HOV) network to the Beltway, easier access routes to employment centers, the upgrade of 12 key interchanges, 13 miles of new and upgraded sound walls, and the renovation or replacement of aging infrastructure, including 42 bridges and overpasses. In the grand scheme of things, it is all very pleasing to the eye. On VDOT’s HOT lanes project website, children are depicted playing jump rope to celebrate their enthusiasm for the future of tolling.
Are taxpayers really getting all of this for the low, low price of $1.2 billion? The $700 million dollar difference will be considered an investment by VDOT’s private-sector partners, Texas-based Fluor Enterprises Inc. and the Austrian toll-road experts, Transurban Group. What kind of power does this investment give them? The power to set toll prices without oversight, according to VDOT, who has no idea how expensive the fares will be. According to the comprehensive agreement reached between VDOT and their private investors, these tolls will be “uncapped and dynamic,” which translates to “as expensive as we want it to be, whenever we want it to be.”
For a project that is being called “a landmark for investors” by Transurban, there is plenty of talk and little to back it up. Searching websites yields several documents of research outlining the necessity of the HOT lanes and a comprehensive definition of “the corridor,” which is the stretch of highway marked for installation and its surrounding infrastructure. However, it is difficult to find any solid timetable or visual representation of this massive overhaul. You can find a two-by-three inch graphic showing what the highways will look like with HOT lanes. It’s an interesting 3D model that could be used to promote an upgraded version of “Frogger.”
This is the grand vision of the VDOT – the roads may actually be paved with green.
—image courtesy of Virginiadot.org
After sifting through the talk and PR, The Capital Beltway Project seems like another reckless adventure in the series of over-hyped American urban development strategies. The taxpayers could have completely funded the overhaul themselves and focused on less expensive alternatives. Seeking additional funding from private businesses who, like banks, will expect more than they give in return, shows irresponsible budget managing. Like a teenager with a brand new stereo and a high-interest credit card, drivers will be recouping their own investment for a long time. HOT lanes completely negate the progress made to promote carpooling. It’s pretty simple: fewer cars on the road means less traffic, less traffic means less congestion, less congestion means cleaner air and when you add up the dominos, you get an environmentally and socially responsible solution.
The methodology of private businesses winning federal and state dirty-work projects rarely includes long-term commitment. It is much easier to salivate over big ideas, big promises and big budgets marketed into convenient little packages.
Allow me to cite a familiar example: Three years ago, economists claimed that the war in Iraq could cost as much as $500 billion. Now that we’re already at that number with no end in sight, economists are researching a new “as much as” figure. If history teaches us anything, it should teach us that failing to plan is planning to fail, as the saying goes.