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The Regional HOV Lane System: Poorly Managed and Underfunded,
But It's Still The Best Alternative to Being Stuck in Traffic

by the Editors, Public Interest Transportation Forum

(Note: This essay was prepared in October, 1996, before the November 5, 1996 vote on the Puget Sound RTA)

Road signs put up by Washington State Department of Transportation describe high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes as "diamonds in the rough". They might more aptly be described as a diamonds lost in the tall weeds of government neglect and micromanagement. After 15+ years and more than $1 billion, the central Puget Sound HOV system exists as a fragmented, half completed high-capacity alternative to freeway gridlock.

HOV improvement components in the RTA Plan are a much better investment than the rail components. HOV in the Plan yields 29,000 new daily transit riders for $738 million versus 37,000 rail passengers for $2.47 billion.

Although the RTA's Long Range Vision states that completion of the system is an "important priority", the words and actions of the RTA indicate otherwise. The reality is that the HOV system is in competition with the RTA's expensive rail proposal for limited resources. So while giving lip service to the benefits of a "seamless" HOV network, the RTA plan provides no money for new lane-miles and only limited funds for necessary connections. Lead RTA planners and proponents often are heard to say of the HOV network: "We've tried that, and it didn't work".

But the system works pretty well -- in spite of its fragmented status and shabby treatment. The best HOV lanes now carry between 4,000 and 5,000 persons per hour, compared with around 2,000 for adjacent general purpose lanes. Express buses (especially those operated by Pierce Transit and Community Transit) are now using the HOV lanes to carry commuters to points in Seattle from Tacoma and Everett. And, the lanes would work a lot better if managed properly -- managed as the complex transportation system component that they are.

On paper, the approximately 304 lane-mile HOV "Core" system that has been planned reaches into all corners of the three-county RTA region. Currently 135 miles are in place and operating. Another 56 miles have been funded and are under construction now. And, although not currently funded, 38 miles are being designed. Maps and other information about the regional HOV system are provided. This leaves 75 miles that are needed but are not even being designed. If constructed at the rate the system has been built so far, another 15+ years would be required to complete the core system.

But freeway lane-miles alone are not sufficient to make a seamless regional system. Fast access to HOV lanes from shopping malls and other major activity centers are needed, as well as connections to transit stations and transfer points, park-and-ride lots, between freeways, and to arterial HOV lanes. In some cases, lanes need to be moved to provide smooth and fast access and egress. Many new direct access ramps are needed so that "inside" HOV lanes can be reached without having the bus make a dangerous merge across congested lanes of auto traffic. Until they are provided (no easy task), the goal of a fast, regional, freeway flyer (the express bus system first defined in the 1972 transit plan that was approved by the voters and which allowed Metro to get into the transit business) is not likely to be realized.

Until very recently, the Washington State Government has treated the HOV system as a poor step-child -- in spite of overwhelming support in public opinion surveys. Funds for lanes have been appropriated on a catch-as-catch-can basis -- a few million in each biennial state transportation budget. There is no management plan that clearly identifies the steps needed to achieve the people carrying potential of the system -- how to maximize the number of buses, vanpools, and carpools utilizing the lanes.

WashDOT efforts to even effectively operate the system have been frustrated by legislative efforts to open the lanes to SOV use, or to dictate the rules for HOV access to the lanes.

Some of this has begun to change. The State DOT recently completed a major study that identified the projects needed to complete and integrate the system. The total bill for completing the Core system is currently estimated to be $1.25 billion ('95 dollars). This figure does not include the $377 million the RTA Transit Plan includes for HOV Expressway access ramps or the $361 million it includes for operating the regional express bus system

Some of these costs may be overstated. A large portion of the total is the cost of providing direct access to inside HOV lanes. Ramps that allow buses to exit and enter a freeway to serve a transfer point are expensive and the time spent getting on and off the freeway slows the trip. Neither the state study nor the RTA plan has looked at modern people-moving technologies that can provide connections between on-freeway transit stops and off-freeway station or park-and-ride lots.

The State Transportation Commission this year adopted a freeway HOV policy that establishes a collaborative process by which the state DOT, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (Puget Sound Regional Council), regional transit agencies, local governments, and other interested parties can set the carpool occupancy rule -- 2+, 3+, etc, and other operating policies. This could finally be the start of the development of a comprehensive management plan for the HOV network, one that details how the lanes can be more fully utilized as well as how completion can be funded, and when and where "lane conversion" is a better alternative than lane construction.

Building HOV is important, but other strategies must encourage drive-alone commuters and other travelers to switch to HOV modes. This reality is implicit in the small number of new transit riders that even a seamless HOV lane network will produce compared to the total trips by motorized vehicles. The Regional Transit Project, the RTA's predecessor, estimated that a fleet of express buses operating on a regional HOV network (the $5 billion TSM alternative) would generate 85,000 new daily transit trips (over the $1.5 billion no-build alternative) in the year 2020. This compares to a daily auto trip volume of 11 million.

Incentives, disincentives and other strategies will be needed if we are to efficiently use the current transit bus capacity and any new capacity that a well-managed HOV network can provide.

The Editors

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Last modified: October 3, 1996