Car pool about to pay more dividends

HOV lanes on U.S. 50 to open next month

7.5-mile stretch cost $19 million

September 30, 2002|By Gabriel Baird | Gabriel Baird,SUN STAFF

Each weekday morning, Mary Ellen McGrath drives to a parking lot off U.S. 50 to board a van that takes her to her Washington office.

The van pool saves her gas money and keeps her from adding 50 miles a day to her car's odometer. But when traffic on the busy east-west highway backs up, the NASA employee and her fellow van-poolers sit in traffic like everyone else.

Soon, that will change.

Starting next month, car- and van-poolers such as McGrath will be able to zip past lone motorists in new lanes for vehicles with two or more occupants.

"We can't wait," said McGrath, an Anne Arundel resident.

The new high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which extend from the Anne Arundel-Prince George's county line to the Capital Beltway, will be the first in the region that are reserved 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Patrick Zilliacus, a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments analyst.

"The only place that I'm familiar with that has 24-hour HOV restrictions is Southern California," Zilliacus said. The council will study the effectiveness of the restrictions next summer, he said.

State officials estimate the HOV lanes will save commuters traveling between Anne Arundel County and Washington about five to seven minutes each way.

Crews are putting the finishing touches on the $19 million project. The left shoulders of eastbound and westbound U.S. 50 are being converted into the HOV lanes, expanding a 7.5-mile stretch of the road from six to eight lanes.

Vehicles will be able to pull onto the right shoulder, and a narrow left shoulder will remain for emergencies, said Kellie Boulware, State Highway Administration spokeswoman.

The state's engineers do not expect traffic to bottleneck where the new lanes end and U.S. 50 returns to six lanes, Boulware said. Traffic disperses at the interchange onto the Beltway and to the New Carrollton Metro station.

Second HOV project

The U.S. 50 project is the state's second HOV project. The other is on Interstate 270, from the Capital Beltway north into Montgomery County.

HOV lanes are more common in Northern Virginia. They can be found on the Dulles Toll Road and Interstates 66, 95 and 395.

The reserved lanes cut rush-hour travel times at least 40 percent, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation Web site.

Restrictions on these interstate highways are in effect only during rush hours.

Maryland officials decided to reserve the lanes on U.S. 50 around the clock to avoid motorist confusion, Boulware said. On I-66 in Virginia, the state opens a shoulder to traffic during rush hour to reserve another lane for car and van pools. The problem is that many motorists continue to drive on the shoulder after rush hour.

Drivers who make the mistake of traveling solo in the HOV lanes on U.S. 50 could pay a steep price: a fine up to $500 and one point on a driver's record. Violators causing an accident will be subject to three points.

`Warning phase'

"Initially, we're going to warn drivers," Maryland State Police Lt. Anita Allen said. "After we feel an appropriate warning phase has elapsed, we'll start issuing traffic citations."

She expects the new lanes to provide the greatest relief during summer months when people travel to the beach. Local police also will enforce the law, Boulware said.

Though state officials acknowledge that enforcement might slow traffic, they say it is needed to ensure the effectiveness of the HOV lanes.

The HOV lanes end before U.S. 50 enters Anne Arundel County, but officials say county residents will benefit.

U.S. 50 carries about 101,000 vehicles across Anne Arundel County's western border each day, and at least 60 percent of those who use the highway to commute live in Anne Arundel, Boulware said.

But don't look for state crews to begin turning the shoulders past Bowie into HOV lanes.

"As it stands, we don't have any plans to expand it into Anne Arundel County," Boulware said.

Not everyone happy

Not all commuters are excited about the changes.

Jeff Warren drives from his home in Crofton to the New Carrollton Metro station, and then takes the train to his office in Washington. Although he uses mass transportation, he won't get to use the new HOV lanes.

"In theory I agree with the concept of ride-sharing, but practically, I'd have been happier if it was a regular lane," he said.

But McGrath believes that watching her and others who ride-share drive past the traffic jams in the regular lanes might make converts of people such as Warren.

"It'll encourage more people to car pool," she said. "That'll help everybody."

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