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HOT lanes have only begun to prove worth

Post by Kim Bradford on Oct. 26, 2008 at 6:40 pm with No Comments »
October 26, 2008 6:40 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

Toll-management of traffic has promise, but Washington may never know how much if Initiative 985 passes next month.

Highway 167’s HOT lanes are due a new nickname.

Data from the lanes’ first four months of operation are in, and the numbers undercut the claim that 167’s high occupancy toll lanes are a special privilege for the rich.

"Lexus lanes," these ain’t. They are more accurately called Ford fast tracks, or maybe Chevrolet expressways. Nearly half of the drivers who bought their way into the carpool lane were driving those two makes.

(Lexus drivers represented a little over 1 percent of the HOT lane users, a share equivalent to their prevalence among registered cars in Washington.)

As The News Tribune’s transportation reporter, Joe Turner, points out, the state’s study is conclusive of nothing. A hulking Ford Expedition or a tricked-out Chevy pickup can cost just as much as a Lexus.

But the data do suggest that drivers in South King County – who are more likely to be driving SUVs than luxury sedans anyway – are warming up to HOT lanes.

The number of daily HOT lane users grew from 1,100 in May to 1,250 in September. On average, drivers paid $1.07 for the privilege of shaving 6 to 7 minutes off the drive between Auburn and Renton.

Expect those numbers to keep growing as the South Sound’s population booms. The recent slide in gas prices also could add to HOT lanes’ appeal if commuters who have been doing anything they can to avoid having to fill up the tank get behind the wheel again.

Variable tolls hold real promise as one possible answer to Puget Sound-area bottlenecks – if Initiative 985 doesn’t pre-empt them.

I-985, under the guise of reducing congestion, would forbid the state from offering drivers the option of buying themselves a faster commute. The measure would expressly prohibit charging tolls in HOV lanes during "non-peak" hours between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

If I-985 passes, no one would want to buy their way into a carpool lane anyway. The rush hour along several stretches of Puget Sound highways lasts beyond 9 a.m. and begins before 3 p.m. I-985 would make HOV lanes useless.

Tim Eyman, who authored I-985, likes to bill his baby as an extension of a performance audit by the state auditor. He fails to mention that the audit recommended the state "deploy future HOT lane projects aggressively if the SR 167 pilot is successful."

The experiment on Highway 167 is just getting started. Let’s give it time to prove its worth.

What's coming
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