Four months after new carpool and vanpool lanes were added to U.S. 50 west of Anne Arundel County, enforcement has been low priority and a significant percentage of drivers appear to be violating the minimum occupancy requirements, prompting complaints from commuters.
The High Occupancy Vehicle, or HOV, lanes extend from U.S. 301 to the Capital Beltway and are restricted to vehicles with two or more occupants, with the exception of motorcycles.
Anne Arundel County motorists make up nearly 60 percent of users of that stretch, according to the State Highway Administration. The HOV lanes, which opened in October, allow commuters in car pools and express buses to speed past traffic jams on U.S. 50, but some are concerned about the number of drivers violating the 24-hour restrictions.
"I think in general they are working," said Vann Rolfson, an express bus commuter from Anne Arundel County. "I've noticed cheaters. I just wonder if there is any enforcement to deter them."
State police spokesman Sgt. Thornnie Rouse said he did not have figures regarding the number of tickets that have been issued for HOV-lane violators. Because of budgetary and other constraints, enforcing the new HOV rules has not been a priority, he said.
"We can't just sit up there watching the HOV lanes," Rouse said. "There are other issues on U.S. 50 aside from HOV lane violations."
A survey by Sun reporters last week found that during a 30-minute stretch of one morning rush hour, more than one in four westbound vehicles using the HOV lanes had one occupant.
A spot-check of westbound U.S. 50 traffic during a nonrush-hour period one afternoon found nearly half of the vehicles violating the HOV restrictions.
The violation rate on Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, the only other highway with carpool and vanpool lanes in Maryland, is about 10 to 20 percent, said state officials.
The maximum penalty for a violation of the HOV rules - considered a failure to obey a traffic control device - is a $500 ticket and one point on a driver's record.
Backers of HOV lanes say they work only if violators are cited.
"Enforcement needs to be part of the total HOV plan," said Amy Cornett, executive director of the Annapolis Regional Transportation Management Association. "Without enforcement, people will take advantage when you put in HOV lanes."
The Virginia State Police assigns troopers to regularly patrol the HOV lanes along Interstate 395, or Shirley Highway, which runs south from the Washington line into the northern Virginia suburbs before becoming Interstate 95.
Officials said they have received grants for troopers to specifically patrol the HOV lanes and strictly enforce the rules. "When I'm out there, I have no problems getting tickets," Virginia State Police trooper Bernard Stewart said.
Rouse said although at least one Maryland State Police trooper is assigned to U.S. 50 at any given time, the trooper must give priority to greater safety risks such as speeding and accidents.
Maryland officials have applied for a federal grant to cover the cost of assigning a trooper on U.S. 50 specifically to patrol the HOV lanes, but they are unsure of the status of the request. It could be months before the state police have the funding to seriously enforce the lanes, Rouse said.
"This is up to the State Highway Administration and the federal government - they are the ones holding the purse strings," Rouse said.
Commuters gave mixed reviews to the HOV lanes in Prince George's County. The lanes are unique for the region in that the restriction is in effect at all times.
"I don't think there is any way they can police it unless they have someone sitting there all day," said Celestine Adams, as she stepped off of an express bus from Washington at a park-and-ride lot on Riva Road near Annapolis.
Commuter James Burd said he would rather see the HOV lanes opened to all motorists.
"They don't do any good," he said. "If their purpose is to punish people who don't carpool, they are succeeding, but if they are trying to reduce congestion and air pollution, they are failing."
SHA spokeswoman Kellie Boulware said state officials plan to evaluate the effectiveness of the HOV restrictions in May or June.
"We want some more time for people to get used to the lanes" before an evaluation is made, Boulware said.
Boulware said the SHA had run some radio spots in September before the lanes opened and that it planned to add more signs along the route to increase awareness of the rules.