April 4, 2008
New ideas in transportation go down better if taste-tested in small bites. Try it on a small scale first. This page has said that about streetcars, and the same logic applies to the HOT lane.
A High Occupancy Toll lane is a car-pool lane with a toll option. Buses and car pools can use the lane free. Single-occupancy vehicles can use it if they pay, using an electronic device called a transponder. A computer sets the toll, with the aim of having it high enough to keep just enough vehicles out so that traffic moves quickly. At rush hour, it will be expensive; at other times, it will be cheap.
That's the theory. On April 26, the state's first HOT lane begins a four-year public test on nine miles of Highway 167 between Auburn and Renton. The car-pool lane in each direction will become a HOT lane. The computer will be able to charge single-occupancy drivers from 50 cents to $9, and change the toll every three minutes. The toll will be posted so that drivers can make an instant decision.
The transportation goal is to make more efficient use of the road. The political goal is to make tolls palatable. The HOT lane aims to do this by charging only for a behavior now forbidden: driving a single-occupancy vehicle in the car-pool lane.
Opponents call HOT lanes "Lexus lanes," suggesting an inegalitarian division between first- and second-class travel. It is that, but like a latte, it is not something affordable only by the rich.
Experience elsewhere shows that many of those who are willing to pay to use HOT lanes are working-class people racing to beat a time clock. The system is a net gain for them, and they support it.
That is the experience elsewhere. The test on Highway 167 will show how people respond to variable tolling here — whether they can stand it, and perhaps even prefer it.