TCS Daily

Pork Addicts and Hypocrites

By Radley Balko - May 23, 2002 12:00 AM

HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes got their start about thirty years ago. They first took root in California, where state and federal planners thought the carpool lanes would encourage ride sharing, which might cut congestion and air pollution.

As most any big city commuter can attest, that really hasn't happened. In the rush to engineer behavior and foster environmentally friendly travel habits, planners forgot to take into account the hassles of coordinating schedules, the rather apparent observation that people who work together aren't all that likely to live close to one another, and the important psychological aspects of commuting - many people simply enjoy the cathartic "alone time" that comes with a solitary drive to work.

According to the office of California State Senator Tom McClintock, who's fighting to eliminate HOV lanes in the Golden State, the typical "diamond" lane consumes 25% of the roadway, but carries just 7% of the traffic. Consequently, 93% of the remaining traffic is confined to just 75% of the pavement.

A 1998 Gannet poll found just 4% of respondents agreed with the statement "HOV lanes work." Just 17% said they "use HOV lanes often," and 57% said they use them "almost never."

In 1997, workers on New Jersey's Route 80 forgot to reinstall the highway's HOV lanes after completing a construction project. New Jersey motorists quickly filled the lanes and reveled in quicker commute times. When the NJ DOT realized its mistake and reinstituted the restrictions, New Jersey motorists revolted.

Aided by a local newspaper columnist and Steve Carellas, the local representative of the National Motorist's Association, New Jersey's drivers won over such unlikely advocates as then-Governor Christie Todd Whitman, and then-Senator Frank Lautenberg, often called the "father" of federally mandated carpool lanes.

In fact, Lautenberg slipped an amendment into the 1999 Transportation Appropriations Bill that gave an HOV waiver to New Jersey's highways, subverting his own amendment to a 1993 bill that specifically tied federal funding of new highways to the implementation of HOV lanes.

In November 1998, in a celebrated ceremony, state highway workers sandblasted the dreaded diamond-shaped HOV designations off New Jersey's Routes 80 and I-287.

New York Governor George Pataki followed suit, refusing $400 million in federal funding that was tied to HOV restrictions on I-287 in Westchester County and along a stretch of the Long Island Expressway.

The HOV backlash was on.

But as you might expect, federal transportation bureaucrats and environmentalists resisted, fearing the New Jersey anomaly might become a trend.

Last spring, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening trial-ballooned the idea of nixing that state's HOV lanes, or perhaps turning them into so-called HOT lanes (where solo commuters would be able to use them for a toll).

HOV advocates pounced. Environmentalists scolded the liberal Glendening, and class warriors appealed to his "record on civil rights" - asserting that allowing a faster commute to wealthier motorists is akin to resegregating lunch counters in Baltimore. Consequently, Maryland's drivers - rich and poor - today still sit in an egalitarian gridlock along the I-270 corridor into Washington, D.C.

But HOV proponents found an even juicier fight in Minnesota.

The rapidly growing Minneapolis/St. Paul area has two primary HOV-restricted arteries, I-394 and I-35W. Only I-35W has it's HOV status directly tied to federal highway funding.

Last year, when Minnesota State Senator Dick Day recommended opening those lanes to all traffic for a short time - merely long enough to conduct a study of their efficacy, HOV advocates took up arms.

Quickly, the Federal Highway Administration's Minnesota division chief, Alan Steger, said he would "not hesitate to suspend money for current Minnesota road projects if the state goes ahead with the test."

Day's bill wasn't HOV lanes down permanently, just to conduct a test to see if they work. But the Federal Highway Administration would have none of it. What if Minnesotans followed their brethren in New Jersey, and enjoyed the temporary freedom a little too much?

Steger admitted as much in an interview with the St. Paul Press. "Once the lanes are opened," he said, "it's our belief that it would be impossible to ever go back."

Heeding the FHA's warning, the Minnesota legislature ordered the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDot) to commission a computer simulation of the HOV lanes' cost-effectiveness. MnDot - which strongly supports HOV lanes - hired Cambridge Systematics, Inc. to conduct the study.

That study concluded both lanes to be a colossal waste of time and money. The lanes were operating at just half their total capacity, and nearly every cost-benefit measure pointed to lifting the occupancy restrictions.

The Cambridge study further concluded that even accounting for the money the state would have to pay back to the federal government if the restrictions were lifted, it still made more sense economically to open the lanes to all traffic.

Incredulously, MnDOT stood firm, due in part to arm twisting from the Federal Highway Administration. Even though just one of Minnesota's HOV highways is tied directly to federal funding, the FHA still has forbidden MnDOT from opening HOV lanes on the other highway -- I-394 - even if only for testing.

Why? According to an MnDot press release, federal officials feared it would "erode popular transit incentives... and have a serious detrimental affect on future use and acceptance of HOV facilities."

According to the National Motorist Association's Minnesota field rep Tom Trecker, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura made the eradication of HOV lanes a conspicuous issue in his 1998 campaign. Yet there's no mention of HOV lanes on the Governor's current website, and according to Trecker, Ventura has largely ignored HOV since taking office.

When pressed, a spokesman for Governor Ventura told me "the Governor would like to look into it, but he's deferring to his DOT director to make the call on this one. He doesn't want to risk losing federal funding."

And so it stands today. Despite clear evidence that its HOV lanes are inefficient, burdensome and costly, Minnesota continues to employ them, due mostly Federal Highway Administration threats, MnDot prejudices, and indifference from elected officials.

The bureaucratic trap is unmistakable. Federal officials will continue to insist HOV works without evidence to the contrary. But practical evidence to the contrary is impossible unless restrictions are lifted for studies. But restrictions will never be lifted, because federal officials learned their lesson in New Jersey, and they'll cut the highway money off from any state that's inclined to try.

The answer lies in Congress, and in the power of constituent service. Elected officials are notorious for advocating one policy for the country, but insisting on important, contradictory exceptions for their own districts. As the New Jersey example shows, even avowed top-down environmentalists like Frank Lautenberg can be persuaded to stray from the green movement's sacred cows if his political standing at home is in jeopardy.

Consequently, New Jersey motorists can bask in free access to the whole of the roadway their tax dollars paid for, while Minnesotans can only fester in gridlock, teased by vast stretches of underutilized asphalt.

The writer publishes the blog The Agitator

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