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Nowhere To Turn: HOT Lanes and Other Insanities


Recently I was asked to help with an effort just north of Charlotte to stop yet another ludicrous project by transportation departments. Along the way, as I’ve researched this project, into my inbox has come the daily influx of travesties in all sectors of government meddling. There’s the marriage issue, the monetary policy issue, the latest healthcare taxes, gun registration and confiscation, the energy/oil issue, on and on. We recently learned the Republican legislator from Ohio named Portman has flipped on the marriage issue to support gay marriage. We hear the establishment Republicans talking about how it is time to turn away from traditional messaging and become “inclusive” on illegal immigration and on gay marriage. The traps are laid and, literally, I wonder where to turn for leadership or for a sign of sanity or commonsense, or adherence to the Constitution or any little glimmer showing the ship is turning. But I digress…

Back to the HOT Lanes: one of my friends who is attending the NCDOT meetings mentioned the word “equity,” which the promoters used in describing the reasoning for the HOT Lanes. What? I had to go looking to find that connection. And find it, I did. You see, the usual complaint about HOT Lanes is that they are “Lexus Lanes,” created to accommodate only the wealthy who can afford the tolls. But wait, but wait! Here’s the little secret about HOT Lanes. In Virginia, the State promised by contract to subsidize the vehicles carrying three or more people in the HOT Lanes. And who does the subsidized money go to? It goes to the toll management company. Voilá! – instant corporate welfare.

Who gets nothing out of this? Commuters who will still be stuck in the slow lanes; and that’s most of them. The promoters admit HOT Lanes do nothing to lessen congestion on a road that is too narrow to accommodate the need of the commuters.

So let’s count the ways our tax dollars are being corrupted by HOT Lanes, shall we?

First, our gasoline taxes and vehicle fees are supposed to pay for the roads on which we drive. Correct? Nah. Not anymore. Now our gasoline taxes and vehicle fees are being diverted to subsidize transportation museums, greenways, bike lanes and paths, and mass transit.  (The museum part is especially funny. I guess we will be able to eventually visit museums to visualize how we used to be able to drive where we wanted to go.) Now government transportation departments all over the nation announce that there isn’t enough money to build and maintain roads. Nope…just not enough money. Add to that the twist that fuel efficient vehicles are causing a lack of transportation funding by not buying enough gasoline to cover the taxes needed for roads and bridges. The irony of that is a bitter pill to swallow, is it not?

Next, we find out that the Republicans are all on board with “outsourcing,” through Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s), the maintenance of toll roads. So the driving public and the highway freight industry have paid for roads that now are being sold off to investors in the toll road business, several of which are foreign-based corporations. Republicans are selling this as a “free market” solution to the road-financing problem.  Hmmm….selling critical infrastructure we own to foreign entities is surely a great “free market” solution, don’t you think? The truth is far, far away from a “free market” solution.

Drawn into this discussion come the Libertarians (I think?) who don’t like subsidized light rail and don’t like Smart Growth. Two gentlemen, Wendell Cox and Randal O’Toole, who I have followed for years based on their objections to Smart Growth and light rail, are now saying HOT Lanes/toll roads are the way to fix transportation problems by making users pay for driving the roads. This completely ignores the fact that users have already paid for and are paying through the nose for maintenance and use of roads. Sure, if you erase history and take away the gas taxes and the public funds for creating the roads in the first place, then privatizing roads might have been the way to go (excuse the pun) in the beginning of establishing the nations’ highways; but that is not what happened and is not what is happening.

Here is what these two gentlemen have to say on the subject:

A better way to use HOV lanes is to turn them into high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes, as recommended by Robert Poole and Ken Orski in a report published in February 2003. High-occupancy vehicles would still use these lanes for free, but low-occupancy vehicles could also use them by paying an electronic toll. This would get more use out of the lanes and give drivers a choice between taking the congested lanes for free or paying a little more and getting home quicker.

HOT lanes will help solve another problem that simply increasing gasoline taxes or using sales or other taxes to pay for transportation improvements would not address. It costs much more to provide roads capable of handling peak demand than it does to provide roads sufficient to meet average demand. Yet gas taxes are the same whether people drive during rush hour or at midnight.

HOT lanes can resolve this problem if they use value pricing, meaning that they charge more during congested periods than during other times of the day. This will help encourage people to take advantage of flextime or otherwise drive during less congested times of the day. Since well over half of all traffic on the road during rush hour is not work-related, value pricing can help to relieve congestion by encouraging non-work-related travel to shift to other times of the day.

The revenues from HOT lanes should be dedicated exclusively to expanding a region’s HOT-lane network. One way to accomplish this is to create regional toll road authorities. Such authorities could sell bonds, buy land, take over unused state or local rights of way, and build new lanes and roads to relieve congestion.

If these ideas can relieve congestion, why are they not used everywhere? One answer is that the leaders of many urban areas have decided not to solve the congestion problem. Instead, they seek to increase congestion out of a perverse hope that increased congestion will somehow reduce congestion by convincing some people to use transit instead of driving.

I am disappointed to find those two fellows have jumped onto this bandwagon, but there it is.

As described above, I will bring in a third segment, the Democrats who want “equity.” How do they achieve “equity” when it comes to these HOT Lanes? They demand that we dare not disenfranchise the less wealthy, so we’ll bend their (the middle class and the poorer among us) behavior for environmental reasons, by forcing them to carpool (HOV – High Occupancy Vehicles) in order to get subsidies. When they carpool during the peak hours of highway use, they get charged ZERO, NADA, ZILCH. But the “powers that be” have figured out that the toll management company can be reimbursed for this activity with our taxes. Oh goody! This policy also created a cute devise by the commuting public called “slugging,” where people line up to get in cars with complete strangers to carpool in order to avoid paying the tolls. (I witnessed this in the DC area when visiting family last year.)

And where did this traffic congestion originate? In the back rooms of planning departments where elected and unelected bureaucrats jammed neighborhoods into areas without enough road capacity to handle the traffic. You can’t tell me this wasn’t done by design. The same planners from the NCDOT and from the Metropolitan Urban Planning Organizations (MUMPO’s) tell us now that we need to sign onto their latest schemes called the 2040 Plans. Gee, does anyone trust these guys? And if someone in elected office does trust them, they ought to be thrown out of office immediately for incompetence and stupidity.

Another aspect of the HOT Lanes, described by Cox and O’Toole above, is “peak pricing” or “congestion pricing,” where the cost of driving on the HOT Lane varies according to the volume of traffic on the stretch of highway affected. More drivers in the HOT Lanes in peak hours with three or more in the vehicle…equals more subsidized tax dollars going to the toll road management company, not back into the public coffers.

Folks, this is also the same mentality that is going to cause you to pay for “peak hourly pricing” on your utility bills …coming down the pike. Someone out there has figured out how to change your behaviors, using Big Brother technology in necessary infrastructure. Can you change your work hours? Will your employer let you drive to and from work during “off peak” hours? Will you be making dinner at 2:00 a.m.? Will the schools change their hours so parents can avoid the high costs of the driving schedule they currently use?

Who is playing with our lives …and to whose benefit?

There are masses of people objecting to the HOT Lanes. Who is listening? Common sense has left the station. The ideological agendas and wallets of people in elected office are manipulating the rest of the masses in ways only Aldus Huxley or George Orwell could grasp. The fix seems to be in and there is no exit from this HOT Lane national trend. At least so far I can’t find one.  Which leaves us stuck on the highway with nowhere to turn.

Hat tip: Corporate Welfare = Hot Lanes

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