One of Maryland's busiest interstates will soon have a lane reserved for car pools, van pools, motorcyclists and buses under a plan that could set a trend for major highways around Baltimore and the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
State officials yesterday unveiled a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane to be phased in along the median lanes of Interstate 270 from the Capital Beltway to Clarksburg in Montgomery County over the next four years.
Beginning next month, afternoon rush-hour motorists will need at least one traveling companion to drive northbound on the median lane of the highway's east spur. Eventually, southbound restrictions will be added in the morning.
While the HOV lane will be a first for Maryland, it is unlikely to be a last. At least five other sites, including portions of I-95, the beltways around Washington and Baltimore, and U.S. 50 from the Capital Beltway to Annapolis, are being considered for similar treatment.
"We'll be watching to see if this concept bears out," said State Highway Administrator Hal Kassoff. "In the long run, HOV lanes on I-270 and throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor are inevitable."
SHA officials said that the restricted lanes are needed because urban traffic growth is outpacing the state's capacity to build highways. The restrictions are meant to promote ride-sharing by commuters, an environmentally friendly act in a region with some of the nation's worst air pollution.
Over the past two decades, the number of vehicles traveling I-270 each day has more than doubled, from 63,000 in 1970 to 157,000 in 1990.
The total is expected to balloon to 250,000 a day by 2010.
The decision to add an HOV lane also has a more immediate benefit for the state.
It raises the federal share of highway construction costs from 80 percent to 90 percent. That could save Maryland taxpayers more than $7 million on the $77 million I-270 widening project.
"[But] we'd still be doing it even without the federal funding," Mr. Kassoff said. "It's the right thing to do."
State officials insist that their approach to HOV is cautious and takes into account some recent unsuccessful experiences in Virginia. The lane along I-270 will have the lightest restriction possible, known as "HOV-2."
That means only two people will have to be on board for the car to use the far-left lane during rush hour.
Some HOV projects mandate at least three people in a car, and the difference is significant.
A State Highway Administration survey found 20 percent of the cars on I-270 already contained two or more people, while fewer than 5 percent had three or more.
A survey last fall of Washington-area members of the American Automobile Association also found a majority favored a two-person restriction.
The HOV lanes will be added while parts of I-270 are being widened.
That could prove critical -- motorists won't get the impression that a lane is being taken away from them.
The Dulles road uproar
Last year, a lane of the highway leading to Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia was designated HOV-3 after it had been previously available to all motorists.
Public furor forced officials to lift the restriction.
"All of a sudden, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road had to crowd into a lane and then sit and watch an empty HOV lane," said Robert S. Krebs, spokesman for AAA's 350,000-member Potomac chapter.
"The lesson is, you don't dare give capacity and take it away later."
Mr. Krebs said AAA supports the I-270 plan although its members still look on HOV warily.
Last fall's poll found 60 percent of AAA members oppose the high-occupancy lanes on the Capital Beltway.
The state's HOV plan won plaudits from AAA, however, for maintaining 12-foot-wide lanes on I-270, keeping shoulders on both sides of the road, and not using the shoulders as temporary traffic lanes -- tactics that have been tried elsewhere to boost traffic capacity.
Enforcement of the HOV restriction could prove tricky.
While the penalty is significant -- a $50 fine and one point on the violator's driver's license -- the first HOV-2 segment is 2.4 miles long and a violator's chances of getting caught appear slim.
Police will stop you
Unlike Virginia police, who can merely mail an HOV citation to the car's owner, Maryland police will have to pull the car over. That could cause a traffic slowdown that cancels any HOV benefit, officials conceded.
There were more than 80 highways in North America with some form of HOV restrictions as of June, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Two more Maryland highways, I-95 from Route 24 to White Marsh Boulevard and U.S. 50 from the Capital Beltway to Annapolis, have been posted by the state as the locations for future HOV lanes -- although how and when has yet to be determined.
Similar restrictions are being considered as part of any future widening of the beltways in Maryland.
State officials also said that they foresee HOV lanes some day along I-95 between Washington and Baltimore.
"HOV can be a success," said Carol Valentine, a planner with the Virginia Department of Transportation. "But you have to realize what you're up against -- people who are in love with driving their cars alone."