For long-frazzled rush-hour commuters, help may be on the way. But first, they've got to give up their stubborn streak of independence and recruit a friend or neighbor who wants to join in car-pooling it to work. Then all they will have to do is hop on the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane and zip along the interstate, bypassing all those solo drivers tied up in endless traffic jams.
That's the vision of highway planners who open their first HOV lane later this month in Montgomery County. If this experiment is as successful as expected, there will be HOV lanes for cars with two or more passengers along the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore Beltway, Interstate 95 north and south of Baltimore and U.S. 50 between Washington and Annapolis.
The idea is to encourage people to commute in bunches, not in individual cars. That's a wise strategy, given the mandates of the federal Clean Air Act that impose harsh penalties on Maryland if it does not find ways to reduce auto-exhaust emissions and air pollution in metropolitan regions. Car-pooling is among the least painful ways of achieving those goals.
Maryland transportation officials picked the right place to try out the state's first HOV lane: Montgomery County. It has the worst congestion and the fastest-growing commuter traffic. Interstate 270 -- from the Capital Beltway north through Rockville, Gaithersburg, Germantown and Clarksburg -- already is 12-lanes wide, carrying 160,000 vehicles a day (one-fifth of them containing two or more persons). By the year 2010, that figure will rise to 250,000 vehicles daily. Highway planers will need HOV lanes -- and lots of prayers -- to handle that magnitude of commuter traffic through Montgomery, even with six lanes in each direction.
There is a limit, though, to the number of traffic lanes that can be constructed to satisfy the commuting habits of Maryland's suburban drivers. We can't pave over all of suburbia with superhighways. Mass transit is desperately needed. HOV lanes are fine in helping to ease the traffic backups and lower the number of rush-hour cars somewhat. But the real answer lies in a comprehensive system of rapid-transit lines extending far out into the suburbs. State legislators don't want to pay for such a system, but it remains the only feasible long-range solution.