Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

Arlington’s lawsuit over the I-95/395 HOT lane project has drawn a constant drumbeat of scathing editorials from the Washington Post and others, and critical letters from certain politicians and road activists.

But do the editorial writers and reporters covering this issue really know what they’re praising or condemning? Do you? Take this little true-false test:

  1. True or false: Arlington’s lawsuit asked VDOT to cancel the I-395 segment of the project.
  2. True or false: Arlington dropped the lawsuit because the 395 segment was deleted.
  3. True or false: The HOT lanes will speed up travel in the 95/395 corridor.
  4. True or false: Arlington didn’t “press for solutions” and just jumped to sue to block the project, as the Washington Post charged in an editorial Friday.
  5. True or false: VDOT didn’t move ahead with the lanes because the lawsuit was blocking their ability to proceed.
  6. True or false: Fairfax and Prince William Counties want the project to move forward.
  7. True or false: The lawsuit claims some people are racists for pushing the project.

Answers: They’re all false.

Virginia has been eagerly pursuing projects to build HOT lanes, such as on the Beltway. HOT lanes are separated lanes which carpoolers and buses can use for free, but solo drivers can also use for a toll.

On the Beltway, these are new lanes. By charging a toll, theoretically the project can make back much of the cost of construction. To accomplish this, the state has contracted the lanes out to a private consortium, Fluor-Transurban, which will build the lanes, then operate them and keep the profits.

However, charging tolls on lanes doesn’t quite pay for building them. Therefore, the contract also includes extra payments from the state, a pernicious provision that if more than 24% of vehicles are the carpoolers or buses not paying a toll, Virginia has to pay a penalty, and other problems.

In theory, a network of roads with HOT lanes has some advantages, though the cost of building many new freeway lanes would be better spent on transit. But if we could go back in time and reconfigure every freeway to have some HOT lanes as part of their original design, we’d at least be able to run a fast network of buses around the region, and encourage carpooling.

We do have one such example to look to: the existing 95/395. Here, there already is a set of HOV lanes, originally built as bus-only lanes (the “Shirley Busway,”) then converted to HOV as well as bus. This corridor “is recognized by the transportation community as the most successful HOV facility in the United States today,” according to a VDOT study.

The “slugging” system encourages many people who might otherwise drive alone to instead carpool. That means that far more people are traveling per car than elsewhere. Likewise, many very successful, heavily-ridden commuter buses ply the corridor, and riders enjoy a speedy trip thanks to the lanes.

This makes the 95/395 project fundamentally different from others. Instead of considering a new facility, this project would take the existing one, convert it from HOV to HOT by allowing solo drivers on with a toll, and widen it by one lane.

How would this affect the existing HOV performance? Would buses go faster or slower? Would fewer people slug?

The biggest question is, would 3 HOT lanes move more people than 2 HOV lanes? It’s not totally clear. Some people would switch to paying the toll instead. If only 1/3 of the 3-passenger HOV cars instead become 3 separate drivers paying tolls, those people could all fill up the new lane with single-passenger cars without the road moving a single extra person than before. The same goes if even a relatively small fraction of bus riders switch to paying the toll.

That would all be great for these companies, since Fluor would get money from the state to build the road, and then Transurban would get money from the tolls. It wouldn’t be good for Virginians, though. People would be paying more for the same trip, air quality would decline, the commuter bus operators would lose riders, and the road wouldn’t be any better than before.

Or maybe it would be better. If VDOT did an analysis, local governments could either know their fears were founded, or not. For example, an earlier VDOT study of switching 95/395 from HOV-3 to HOV-2 concluded that, at least without new lanes, allowing 2-passenger carpools would increase the number of cars using the road but decrease the overall number of people the road moves each day.

VDOT did an environmental analysis for the Beltway HOT lanes. However, 10 days before the end of the Bush administration, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) gave a “categorical exclusion” allowing Virginia to simply skip this analysis altogether.

And this is why Arlington sued.

Myth 1: Arlington’s lawsuit asked VDOT to cancel the I-395 segment of the HOT lane project.

Arlington was asking VDOT not to cancel any particular part of the project, but rather to perform the required analysis before moving ahead. VDOT refused, and wasn’t answering questions, so they brought the lawsuit to force the analysis and get some answers.

Myth 2: Arlington dropped the lawsuit because the 395 segment was deleted.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton announced that VDOT would cut back the planned HOT lanes to 395. He worded the announcement in a way that made it sound like, under duress, they were acceding to Arlington’s request and taking away the portion in Arlington (and Alexandria). Arlington also dropped the lawsuit last week.

To the casual observer, it sure looked like VDOT gave Arlington what they want, so they dropped the suit. And VDOT did give Arlington what they were asking for, but removing the 395 portion wasn’t it.

Instead, what’s significant is that VDOT agreed to actually perform an environmental analysis. They’ll likely still ram through a project with some significant bad elements, but they’ll at least answer a few key questions first.

Foremost among those questions is this: Will these HOT lanes actually end up moving traffic more slowly?

In the next part, we’ll look at why this is a real danger.

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.