In July Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stood on the platform of a train station in Alexandria to announce that the U.S. Department of Transportation had granted $165 million for the Atlantic Gateway project.
While this is a multimodal project featuring rail, bus, and highway improvements, it was clearly the latter that most enthused the governor. At one point during his remarks, he declared that because of the road projects, “Today, the congestion is going to end!”
The primary focus of the highway improvements will be an extension of the HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes on I-95 and I-395. The only other speaker after the governor was a representative from Transurban, the controversial company that will operate the extended toll lanes.
Is McAuliffe right to be so confident in the ability of HOT lanes to eradicate congestion? Let’s look at three key arguments often heard in favor of HOT lanes.
Argument 1: Adding HOT lanes reduces congestion in general lanes along the same route.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, HOT lanes — sometimes branded as “express” or “managed” lanes — pull users from the general lanes because they stay uncongested. As usage of the HOT lanes increases, the toll increases. That keeps those who don’t want to pay the higher toll from entering. If enough drivers leave the general lanes for the toll lanes, the general lanes will move more freely.
This argument overlooks the phenomena of induced demand: as capacity increases, traffic also increases, as measured by vehicle miles traveled. The California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, acknowledged this effect could neutralize capacity expansions within five years.
It may not take that long. In Houston, Texas, commuters have discovered that having the world’s widest expressway that includes HOT lanes is no permanent congestion cure. The Katy Freeway is now a staggering 23 lanes wide, but three years after the state allocated $2.8 billion to expand it, congestion returned to its original level and continues to grow.