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Could HOT lanes make traffic worse?

Wednesday - 10/26/2011, 5:10am  ET

Adam Tuss, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - It's an unsettling thought for residents, transportation planners and most importantly drivers: sit through years and years of road construction, spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fix congestion and traffic actually gets worse.

Drivers in Atlanta are fuming mad because they say new High Occupancy Toll lanes have created that exact scenario. Drivers say the HOT lanes on Interstate 85 have simply pushed people out of what were the HOV lanes, and further crowded the regular lanes.

"My commute's gone from about 45 minutes to about two hours," one driver told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That's an hour and a half I don't have with my kids."

Atlanta's HOT lane project is different than what's happening on the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia. In Atlanta, one HOV lane in each direction was converted to a HOT lane. On the Beltway, no lanes are being taken away. In fact, two brand new HOT lanes are being added in each direction to what is already in place between Springfield and just north of the Dulles Toll Road.

An op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution argues that HOT lanes need time to show their real value, and that successful HOT lane programs have been established in places like Denver and San Diego.

The concept behind the lanes is fairly simple. Drivers can use them for free if you have three or more people in their car. Any less than that, drivers have to pay a toll. The more the lanes are used, the higher the tolls, the idea being that some will be priced out of the lanes and traffic will be able to continue moving.

All are promised a speedy commute of at least 45 miles per hour. Tolls are collected using an E-Z Pass-like device that will allow traffic to keep flowing.

The estimated opening date for the Beltway HOT lanes now stands at December 2012, according to VDOT.

The current cost estimate is $1.9 billion. The project is being funded by both public and private money. Australian-based Transurban-Fluor is the private party investing in the project.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All rights reserved.)