HOTless in Seattle

167 HOT lanes (Photo: WSDOT)167 HOT lanes (Photo: WSDOT)

It appears some road planners in the Seattle area assumed that drivers would be willing to pay their way out of congestion.

It appears that this is not so.

A pilot project was designed for high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes at State Route 167 in metro Seattle. But the use projections were way, way off.  So can we use this data to expand the HOT lane debate?

The project created ten miles of tolled HOT lanes (the only HOT lanes in the Pacific Northwest). They were converted from HOV lanes in 2008 for $18 million. Five years later it seems the lanes are being used about two-thirds less than Washington DOT predictions. New HOT lanes may now be headed for a ‘hold.’

Income from the Seattle HOT lanes appears to be there, so the lanes are not being subsidized. But if usage is so far below projections we surely need to go back and rethink the basic premises of these lanes.

The base idea is, of course, that as regular lanes back up, drivers can slide over into the tolled HOT lanes. And then as the regular lanes back up even more, the HOT lane price goes up. The driver switching to a HOT lane pays (into state transportation coffers, if the deal works as it should) for a quicker ride and the congested regular lanes are not as congested as they might have been.

But if drivers would rather stay in the congested regular lanes (and a lot of these drivers make some really good money), rethinking is needed.

Less driving is also a factor. But if the projection were wrong here too, the whole HOT lane raison d’etre would seem to be shaky at best. The irony of course is that fewer cars on the road means less congestion so less need to drive in a HOT lane.

The data showing the shortfalls in HOT lanes is valuable stuff–the sort of numbers planners can get to grips with. We can’t deal with congestion by hoping less vehicles will be on the road; we need planning to find a way to fight the problem. Perhaps we need more lane miles.  So, Seattle guys, get to tweaking. If this way isn’t the best way, what is?