Helping drivers buy relief from traffic woes

March 13, 2000|By Michael Replogle and Scot Spencer

TRAFFIC CONGESTION in the Baltimore region shows no signs of abating.

Smart Growth, added transit investment, and the strong economy offer hope for revival of Maryland's older urban centers and expanded travel choices. Yet for many, the car is essential and the lack of a car remains a critical handicap that limits job access.

But we can no more build our way out of congestion than we can solve a weight problem by buying larger pants. We need to get smarter about transportation and growth and expand transportation choices. Stopping growth only locks in current unsustainable patterns. Transit investment alone won't solve congestion.

We need smart incentives that could save time and money, bolster our choices, and help foster environmental and transportation equity.

One promising strategy is Maryland's new 50 percent tax credit (up to $360 a year per employee) for employers who buy their employees transit passes.

The Maryland legislature is considering a bill to extend this credit to nonprofit firms and to employers giving employees added cash income in lieu of workplace parking, which California's experience suggests could take one out of eight commuter vehicles off the road.

Another promising option for unclogging roads is high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. These allow solo drivers to pay to use express lanes that are free for carpools and transit. The Maryland Department of Transportation, with support from many environmental and business groups, is studying such incentive strategies for Interstates 495, 95 and 270, the Chesapeake Bay tunnels and bridges and U.S. 50 and Route 210.

A network of HOT lanes on existing high-speed highways could relieve the pressure for big new roads and could bring with them increased travel choices. When HOT lane revenues help fund new bus, ride-sharing and transit services, as on the I-15 HOT lane in San Diego, the lanes benefit all commuters and boost both travel efficiency and equity. Transit users and car-poolers get access to what are otherwise inaccessible suburban jobs. And solo drivers can benefit from reduced road congestion or better service and reduced fares if they switch to transit.

Non-stop electronic fare technology now readily available means HOT lanes wouldn't involve any delay in paying tolls. And higher tolls at rush hour and discounted tolls at other times keep traffic flowing without wasting scarce road capacity like HOV lanes do.

This makes it possible to contemplate future conversion of some existing general-purpose lanes to HOT lanes particularly where new capacity is being added.

Experience indicates this strategy can be popular. On California's Route 91, where HOT lanes originated in the United States, the diversion of traffic onto HOT lanes has reduced congestion on the entire road and increased the average number of passengers per car to 1.6. California's HOT lanes tolls for single-occupant vehicles range from 7 cents a mile late at night to 40 cents a mile at the peak of rush hour, adjusting the price to assure that the lanes will not get congested.

HOT lanes have been implemented or are being considered in other states, including Texas, Florida, Colorado and Georgia.

Are low-income people hurt by HOT lanes? Not if the revenues are used appropriately. Real-world studies show HOT lanes are used by people of widely varying income who share an occasional need to control the traffic delays that interfere with social, family or work life.

A time-stressed, working-class mother running late and facing a $1 a minute overtime penalty at her day care center is happy to have the option of beating the traffic. The worker without a car is helped by expanded access to suburban jobs. And costly, sprawl-inducing new outer beltways are less likely to win political favor if time-stressed travelers have a way to buy relief from growing congestion delays in existing freeway corridors.

Throwing more money into road expansion won't solve our problems. We need new strategies like HOT lanes and wider use of new transit incentives to help us untangle our traffic mess and boost transportation equity.

Michael Replogle is transportation director and Scot Spencer is a transportation specialist with Environmental Defense.

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