Photo from Washington State Department of Transportation.

VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board have made up their minds to add high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to I-395. Arlington and Alexandria, through which the lanes will pass, aren’t so sure, and claim VDOT hasn’t provided answers to their questions about the impact or benefits of the lanes. As a result, they are taking formal steps to oppose the plan.

Arlington deputy manager Marsha Allgeier told the Arlington Connection, “We have not to date received a response to our request for data. We continue to be concerned about the impact this would have on our streets, and we continue to press for answers.” VDOT’s conduct in this case sounds very similar to the I-66 battle, where VDOT jumped to the conclusion that more lanes was the only answer, then ignored their promise to look at other possibilities.

Meanwhile, VDOT’s project manager Young Ho Chang showed a typical blindness to transportation solutions other than more lanes. “Wouldn’t it be better for people in the inner jurisdictions to have people in outer jurisdictions to be in a carpool or transit?” he asked. “That’s what this project has been designed to encourage.”

Actually, it would be better for the inner jurisdictions, the outer jurisdictions, the state as a whole, the environment and our society if Virginia’s transportation policy promoted other means of mobility besides more cars driving more miles. HOT lanes might encourage more carpooling than regular lanes, but also far more driving than spending the same amount of money on transit or helping people live closer to work. Meanwhile, Virginia is still under-investing in VRE, which could potentially move a lot more people with less land, less energy, and less pollution.

There’s also no real reason to believe HOT lanes will accomplish what highway boosters claim. California’s SR-91 HOT lanes only ever made a profit because they replaced an existing median, which made construction extremely cheap. Beltway lanes will cost more money and bring in less. They’re a better alternative to just adding lanes, period, but still cost money, increase driving and pollution, and move mobility in the wrong direction.

Maryland, too, is all hot under the collar for HOT lanes. Limited housing opportunities in western Montgomery County are pushing more people into Frederick County, and instead of adding housing closer to jobs and beefing up rail transit like the MARC line to Frederick, Maryland SHA is set on adding more car capacity to I-270 one way or another.

"We were asked to take a look at ways that we can put improvements out in the corridor, but find some way to pay for those improvements, and ETLs is what’s come through from MDOT,” consultant Brian Horn told the Frederick News-Post. The way he describes this makes it sound like MDOT’s a sausage machine, where you put a transportation problem in one end, turn the crank, and a recommendation to widen freeways comes out the other end.

There’s an alternative. We already have a rail network that could be transporting an order of magnitude more people than it does today. When discussing Berliner’s suggested Red Line stop, some commenters asked about creating an express Red Line. We could have one that reaches planned new development from Gaithersburg to Fort Belvoir, and reaches Frederick, Baltimore, Richmond and Charlottesville. All we have to do is fully exploit the existing commuter rail infrastructure or even expand it further.

Building out the commuter rail system contains challenges, which would cost money, but so do new lanes on 395 and 270. Sadly, VDOT and MDOT look at the region’s mobility, see a lot of traffic, and conclude that we need more lanes. In VDOT’s case, they seem to see the inner jurisdictions as obstacles to clearing more room for outer jurisdictions’ cars instead of as partners in a better system. The future of our region depends on some more creativity from the state transportation chiefs and their top people, or the political courage of regional leaders.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.