NoVa HOT Lane System Nearing Completion. Now What?

Pierce Homer, former Secretary of Transportation

Several years ago I found myself sitting in the office of Pierce Homer, who served as Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation between 2005 and 2010 during the Warner and Kaine administrations. He pointed to a large map in his office showing the multiple spines of the Northern Virginia transportation system — the Interstate 95/395 corridor, the Interstate 66 corridor, the Dulles Toll Road corridor, and the Interstate 495 Capital Beltway. He envisioned a day when there would be tolled HOT lanes on three of the four corridors (with the Metro Silver Line running down the Dulles Toll Road corridor).

Homer’s vision struck me as audacious at the time. No one, to my knowledge, had ever articulated such a goal. The vision was not part of the public discourse about transportation policy at the time. Neither Governor Tim Kaine nor any of his successors ever put forth the scheme to the citizens of Northern Virginia as part of coherent, unified vision of the region’s transportation future.

But within a few years, Homer’s vision will come to fruition. Construction is about to commence on an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 395 to convert high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. As the Washington Post reports, the $480 million project will “deliver the next major milestone in the state’s vision to create a network of more than 90 miles of HOT lanes in Northern Virginia by 2022.”

About 45 miles of HOT lanes are operating on I-495 and I-95 already. Another 10 miles are scheduled to open on I-66 next month. I-395 will complete the HOT lane-ification of Northern Virginia.

Homer’s vision has been implemented piece by piece throughout three successive gubernatorial administration, two Democratic and one Republican. While individual projects have seen controversy over the details, no one has raised serious objections to the larger architecture. No politician has made it a signature issue to halt the HOT lanes. Given how agitated people get over traffic in Northern Virginia, that’s a remarkable thing.

The HOT lane formula prevailed because Northern Virginia’s transportation options are so constrained. Over the years the region’s highways became so boxed in through sprawling suburban development that the acquisition of right of way to expand the width of the highway corridors became prohibitively expensive. Except in the Dulles corridor, commuter rail wasn’t a serious alternative. Despite carpoolers’ ability to access lightly traveled HOV lanes, shared ridership has been declining. (The jury is out whether Uber can revitalized ride sharing.) But HOT lanes raised toll revenue that could be used to add new lanes in between existing lanes, make interchange improvements, and even subsidize the cost of commuter bus routes. Also, HOT lanes gave time-sensitive motorists the option of buying their way out of traffic gridlock, which took a few cars off the other lanes and rendered them marginally less congested.

Adding HOT lanes was a necessary evolution to the road system that has made driving in Northern Virginia temporarily more tolerable than it would have been without them. As one who makes periodic forays into Northern Virginia, I have used the HOT lanes on occasion. But congestion is a still deterrent to Richmonders venturing to Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Indeed, I would say based upon my personal experience that driving on I-95 is more gridlock-prone and unpredictable than ever. 

I regard HOT lanes as a palliative that purchased the region a few years’ reprieve from traffic hell but does not address the region’s imbalance in the location of jobs and housing that forces people to commute long distances. As former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor E M Risse used to remind us repeatedly, there is no transportation solution for poor land use policy. Northern Virginia cannot build enough highways, commuter rail, HOV lanes or HOT lanes to fix what ails it. The only long-term solution is to build communities with a better balance of jobs, housing, shopping, public services, and other amenities at the neighborhood and sub-regional scale, and to design communities with sufficient density that people can reach many of their destinations by foot.

If only we had a Pierce Homer of land use policy with a vision of Northern Virginia’s land use future….