State officials study HOV lanes for Capital Beltway
Sep. 24, 1997

State transportation officials say the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 270 are working, and they will continue to study whether the same restrictions would ease congestion on the Capital Beltway.

"It's working within the parameters we established early on," State Highway Administrator Parker Wil-liams said Monday, echoing comments he made at a transportation briefing to the county's state legislators last Thursday at the County Council office building.

The HOV-2 lanes on I-270 opened last December. Early results of a survey conducted by state transportation officials show that an average of 700 cars an hour use the HOV-2 lanes when restrictions are in place, Williams said.

The 19-mile northbound HOV-2 lane is restricted to vehicles with two or more passengers from I-495 to Clarksburg Road from 3:30-6:30 p.m., and the 12-mile southbound lane is restricted from I-370 to the Beltway from 6-9 a.m.

State officials are studying whether HOV lanes would work on all 42 miles of the Beltway in Maryland, Williams said. The state already has spent $1.4 million studying HOV lanes and other improvements to ease Beltway congestion.

The county's state legislators were not pleased when Williams mentioned the Beltway study, and some openly expressed disbelief at the early findings of the I-270 survey.

"I was surprised," State Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville said Monday. "I cannot imagine adding another lane on the Beltway."

State legislators were particularly concerned about how lanes would be added to the Beltway.

"When he said they were going to add a lane, I was trying to figure out where," State Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring said Monday. "Some of the area he would have to go into would be parkland, and [in] some of the area they would have to take homes."

Ruben, who adamantly disagreed with the state survey showing that HOVs are a success, said she would need a lot of convincing before agreeing to spend money on HOV lanes on the Beltway.

"I don't like HOV lanes," Ruben said. "I don't think they do the job they are supposed to do." Referring to the I-270 study, she said, "I disagree with him. Totally. I drive it all the time. When I'm there, I see five or six cars."

Despite their unpopularity, HOV lanes on I-270 are here to stay unless the state government is willing to repay the federal government 80 percent of the $97 million project.

"We put the HOV lanes in [because] the federal government forced us to," State Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg, chairman of the county's delegation to the House, said Monday. "This is not a matter for debate."

HOV lanes on the Beltway, however, are another matter, he said.

"I've never been a big supporter of HOV lanes. I don't think they change behavior," Barve said.

But Barve said he does not feel the study is necessarily a waste of money.

"I don't want to dismiss anything out of hand," he said. "But if they had to condemn houses to build extra lanes, it would certainly not happen in my lifetime. And longevity runs in my family."

The state started studying HOV lanes on the Beltway in 1993, said project manager Sue Rajan.

Transportation officials are floating three different HOV options for the Beltway, Rajan said: two new lanes similar to those on I-270, lanes that are barricaded from the rest of traffic, and HOV lanes that single-passenger cars can access by paying a toll.

A final recommendation is not expected until late 1999.

If HOV lanes are going to move more efficiently, police need to cut down on the number of drivers who violate the passenger rule, Williams said.

About 15 percent of those using the I-270 HOV lanes are violating the two-passenger rule, Williams said. The national average of violations on similar systems is between 6 percent and 10 percent.