Critics dismiss it as favoritism for wealthy motorists, but a plan to let drivers buy their way out of traffic jams might soon get serious scrutiny from Maryland highway officials.
The State Highway Administration expects to learn next month if Maryland is among the states that will split $7 million set aside by Congress to study the merits of "High Occupancy Toll" (HOT) lanes.
The toll lanes build on the concept of the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes already on some Maryland highways. They offer drivers with multiple passengers an express lane as a reward for carpooling.
By adding tolls to HOV lanes, the state could allow lone drivers to buy the right to use them as well. Those who carpool would continue to ride for free.
Dubbed "Lexus Lanes" by some, the concept has been tested on two highways in California.
"More aptly, they're probably Chevette and Lexus lanes," said Maryland Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari. "What they found in California is that the people using [the toll lanes], in terms of income groups and demographics, are very similar to the overall users."
The goal is a more efficient system of moving motorists through congested areas.
If Maryland's application for a $500,000 Federal Highway Administration grant is approved, a yearlong local study would begin.
Officials say they would probably consider the feasibility of installing the lanes in two places. One would be a suburban Washington highway corridor -- either Interstate 270, Route 210 or the Capital Beltway. The other would be one of four roads that already charge tolls -- the Key Bridge, the Bay Bridge or the Fort McHenry or Harbor tunnels.
The idea has drawn criticism from one lobbying group for motorists, the American Automobile Association. The group's mid-Atlantic office said yesterday that it would oppose any plans for the lanes.
"Our feeling is everybody pays taxes for roads in the state of Maryland," said AAA spokeswoman Myra Wieman. "People refer to these as Lexus Lanes because only the rich can afford them. Does [the state] mean people who can't afford it shouldn't be able to get to work in a timely manner?"
Earlier this year, AAA released results of a survey in which 58 percent of Maryland drivers who were questioned opposed the idea.
But Porcari said the HOT lanes could prove to be one of many answers for the Baltimore/Washington area, considered to have the second-worst traffic congestion in the nation.
The system can be adjusted so the cost of traveling in a HOT lane varies depending on the amount of congestion. A system used in San Diego exacts a fee of anywhere from $1 to $4, according to the volume of traffic. During rush hour, it's more expensive to drive the fast lane. As the traffic thins outs, the price drops. High occupancy vehicles continue to travel at no cost at all times.
Through such a system, the state can make the most efficient use of the fast lanes, said Porcari. One of the most important uses for the lanes is for transit buses, he added.
"People ask should we add mass transit, fix the local roads, try to do carpooling. The answer is all of the above, and HOT is a part of it."
Computer technology also is driving Maryland's interest in HOT lanes.
The state recently began its MTAG system, which allows commuters to pay tolls electronically through a prepaid account or by credit card. A computer system at each toll facility reads a transponder in the car's windshield, automatically deducting the toll and allowing the driver to continue without stopping.
The same sort of system could be used to bill drivers on HOT lanes, officials said.
The question of fairness for all motorists, regardless of income, is expected to remain an issue.
"The FHA is concerned about this, and one of the things we're gong to talk about is how we'll deal with that issue," said Parker F. Williams, administrator of the State Highway Administration. "Arguably, the toll is set at a level that some would feel is not a major cost. But it is a price you have to pay, and this favors people who have the ability to pay."
He said officials expect to consider a range of options, including applying some of the revenue to purchase more express buses.
Pub Date: 5/19/99