To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bill would give auto owners more control over vehicle data

The proposal by California's two giant auto clubs would allow car owners to give the clubs and independent mechanics greater access to computer and Internet data in their vehicles.


By March Lifsher, March 18, 2014

 connected cars

About 1 in 5 new cars already collects and transmits to manufacturers data about engine performance, safe or unsafe driving maneuvers, cellphone or entertainment system usage and location.

SACRAMENTO — California's two giant automobile clubs proposed legislation Tuesday that would give car owners more control over computer and Internet data streaming from their vehicles.

About 1 in 5 new cars already collect and transmit to manufacturers data about engine performance, safe or unsafe driving maneuvers, cellphone or entertainment system usage and location. By 2025, every passenger auto is expected to be a "connected car" that's in constant contact with the Internet and even with nearby cars.

"Our cars are quickly becoming mobile computers," said bill author Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel). "While this technology provides several important benefits to consumers, it is imperative that there are basic safeguards in place to ensure consumers can decide who has access to their data" and what information should remain private.

Now, much of the data is available only to carmakers and dealers, but the auto clubs are pushing for greater access for them and for independent mechanics, but only with the specific authorization of the vehicle owner.

Making the performance data more available would prompt more competition in the auto repair market, the auto clubs said. Increased availability also would help owners learn about potential problems before they cause breakdowns and expand the types of roadside emergency services available to owners.

The measure, SB 994, was attacked by major auto manufacturers even before it was introduced at a media event on the steps of the state Capitol. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington trade group, denounced it as another "single-interest corporate bill" designed to generate revenue for the nonprofit automobile clubs of Northern and Southern California.

The Monning proposal could turn into a noisy statehouse slugfest. Both the automobile clubs, with their 10 million California members, and the manufacturers, along with their new car dealer allies, already are mustering formidable legislative campaigns, including squads of lobbyists, expensive public relations contractors, opposition researchers and websites.

The proposal, which is expected to get its first committee hearing in mid-April, would ensure consumers know and understand what information is being collected and transmitted to the automaker, guarantee that car owners and their designates have access to all the data and give owners control over who can see the information to service the vehicle.

The bill is aimed at providing a choice to the American Automobile Assn.'s California members, said Alice Bisno, a senior vice president at the Automobile Club of Southern California.

"We get the information only if our members say we get the information," she said. "Nothing in this bill says the AAA or anybody can have the information without the owner's permission.

That's what Christopher Jimenez y West said he wants. The community college history professor from Santa Monica said he was frustrated when his "check engine" light came on and he took his Prius to his preferred repair shop. The mechanic said he couldn't get access to the engine performance data unless he paid $135 to Toyota, the manufacturer.

"It's a durable good I purchased," he said. "Why don't I have access to the information? It should be mine."

Major automakers see the bill differently. Manufacturers denounced the Monning measure as an "AAA insurance data grab," noting that the state's two auto clubs are large insurance companies.
The legislation is "a dangerous gambit to access motorist data to share across its 50 affiliates for commercial advantage," said Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers Chief Executive Mitch Bainwol.

What's more, automakers argue that they already provide service-related data to non-dealer mechanics and that providing all available information to third parties "dangerously jeopardizes the security of data generated by an auto, posing an unacceptable threat to motorist safety, privacy and the 21st century future of automotive connectivity as championed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration."

Chinese firm may lose bus contract with Long Beach

Chinese start-up Build Your Dreams violated federal rules and should not have been allowed to bid on delivering an electric-bus fleet to Long Beach Transit, officials say.


By Shan Li and Abby Sewell, March 18, 2014

 Chinese firm may lose bus contract with Long Beach

 Chinese company Build Your Dreams failed to submit its goals for working with small businesses owned by minority or other disadvantaged groups before bidding. Above, a bus from the company is cared for by Joaquin Clara Lopez in Lancaster, where the firm has built a manufacturing plant.

Chinese automaker Build Your Dreams is close to losing a $12-million contract to deliver a fleet of electric buses to Long Beach Transit, a deal the company hoped would jump-start its U.S. operations.

Federal transit officials said that BYD violated some regulations that made it ineligible to bid in the first place. Both sides are in talks to determine how to best exit the contract ahead of what is expected to be a new round of bidding.

It would mark a big setback for the Chinese company, which outbid four rivals last spring to build 10 electrically powered buses for Long Beach. It was the first contract BYD won since building a bus manufacturing factory in Lancaster last year.

"This is certainly a damper for the company and its hopes that they will become a bigger force in the U.S.," said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc. "For a company in start-up mode … that's a big thing to take in."

The Federal Transit Administration decided that BYD was not eligible to compete for the contract because it violated agency regulations on federally funded projects, according to letters sent by the agency to Long Beach Transit.

BYD failed to submit its goals for working with small businesses owned by minority or other disadvantaged groups before bidding, the letters said. That violated rules under the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, designed to give small businesses a chance to compete fairly on federally funded projects.

The company submitted the paperwork in June, but by then it was too late. As a result, the transit administration threatened to withdraw millions in funding to Long Beach Transit.

Long Beach Transit now has two options: Cancel the contract with BYD and open a second round of bidding, or find more money to buy the buses.

BYD has appealed to the secretary of Transportation to overrule the agency's decision, said Lanny Davis, a BYD attorney. But the company is in negotiations with Long Beach for "an amicable resolution" in case the contract must be terminated and a new round of bidding begins.

Davis described the original error as "a good-faith mistake." An executive at the company believed the paperwork could be submitted after the contract was won rather than before the bidding took place, he said.

BYD can compete for the contract again if the original is terminated by Long Beach Transit, Davis said. "We are confident that there will be no significant adverse effects," he said.
Long Beach Transit has given BYD time to find a solution, transit spokesman Kevin Lee said. He declined to comment further.

The Shenzhen, China, company has also won contracts to build two buses for the Antelope Valley Transit Authority and as many as 25 for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It has about 50 employees in the Southland at its downtown headquarters and the Lancaster facility.

BYD has had its share of problems in the last year.

The company was the subject of an investigation by the state's Department of Industrial Relations into its workplace practices. In October, investigators raided BYD's headquarters and its bus factory.
The labor agency later fined the company for violating California labor laws, and labor activists protested outside its offices.

In January, state labor regulators withdrew minimum wage citations against the company after BYD officials showed that workers who were allegedly paid less than minimum wage were actually paid more than the California minimum.

Is transit winning the transport battle in the US?


By Alan Davies, March 17, 2014

New data shows public transport use in the US in 2013 was the highest it’s been since 1956. But that should be small comfort – compared to cars, public transport use in the US is still piddling

Number of public transport trips in the US by mode ('000). Source data: APTA

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) says Americans made 10,654 million trips by public transport in 2013, up 1.1% compared to 2012. Travel by cars went up just 0.3% over the same period and population by 0.7%.

Public transport patronage in the US has been growing in absolute terms for two decades: APTA says it’s increased 37% since 1995. Over the same period, the US population grew 20% and car use (VMT) increased 23%.

According to the Chair of APTA, Peter Varga, the rising mode share of public transport indicates there’s a “fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities”. Mr Varga says:
People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth. Access to public transportation matters. Community leaders know that public transportation investment drives community growth and economic revitalization.
APTA’s media release highlights a welcome and important improvement, but it might give a misleading impression. It tends to obscure the enormous challenge still facing public transport policy in the US.

Is should be clear that 10,654 million transit trips relative to a 2013 population of 317 million is not as compelling as almost the same number of trips against a 1956 population of 169 million.

Urbanisation has also increased substantially over the last 57 years, which should favour transit.
Another issue is APTA’s focus on percentage increases doesn’t show that public transport still only accounts for a very small proportion of all travel.

The journey to work is the purpose where public transport does best, but according to another study, Commuting in America 2013, only around 4.9% of Americans currently commute by transit (up from 4.6% ten years ago) compared to 86% who drive to work.

While the use of public transport for commuting grew three times faster than car use over 2000 to 2010, the absolute increase in car trips was nevertheless much larger. Car commutes increased by 5.4 million trips over the ten years whereas journeys to work by transit increased by 0.9 million.

Mode shift to public transport from cars is part of the explanation for the relatively slow growth rate of car use over the last decade, but it’s not the primary reason. The authors of Commuting in America 2013 say it’s predominantly due to slower growth in the total level of commuting.

It’s likely wider economic and social changes explain most of this slowing (e.g. see here, here, here and here), but strong growth in working at home was also a factor. The number of home-based workers grew by 1.7 million over the last decade, almost double the increase in commuting by public transport. (1)

It’s also worth looking more closely at APTA’s figures for 2012 and 2013, since they measure all public transport use, not just work trips. They show the story of public transport growth in the US is mostly about rail and a handful of old cities, especially New York.

The national 1.1% increase in patronage over 2012-13 reported by APTA is almost entirely due to a single mode. Of the total 117.2 million increase in trips over the year, almost all of them (113.2 million) were made on heavy and commuter rail.

Light rail trips increased by a much smaller amount (7.9 million) and bus trips fell marginally (-5.2 million). Nonetheless, buses are easily the largest transit mode, carrying 25% more travellers than heavy and commuter rail in 2013 and ten times as many as light rail.

Turning to cities, New York’s MTA is the dominant agency. It carried 3,648 million of the nation’s 10,654 million public transport trips in 2013, well ahead of Chicago with 602 million trips.
Heavy and commuter rail passenger trips in New York totalled 2,836 million and accounted for 66% of all rail trips in the US.  The next largest city for rail was Washington DC, with a comparatively small 273 million trips.

The MTA was also the largest bus operator, carrying 812 million bus passengers in 2013 and accounting for 15% of all bus trips in the country. The next biggest cities for buses were Los Angeles (363 million), Chicago (300 million) and Philadelphia (161 million).

Without New York’s MTA, there would’ve been no increase in public transport patronage in the US between 2012 and 2013. The agency carried an extra 123 million passengers by rail and bus combined; more than the total national net increase in patronage of 117.2 million trips over the period.

Outside of New York, there was no net growth in public transport. A number of other cities certainly experienced some growth, but their increases in aggregate were offset by those cities that suffered falls in patronage.

Eight cities increased patronage on heavy rail and seven lost passengers. APTA draws attention to Miami’s impressive 10.6% increase in heavy rail patronage but the increase was from a very small base i.e. from 19.2 million trips to 21.3 million.

Light rail systems in ten cities (out of 27) and bus systems in 17 cities (of 37) lost patronage over 2012-13. More cities gained than lost, as would be expected with population growth, but the absolute increases were not large.

For example, APTA highlights the impressive performance of New Orleans’ light rail system, which increased patronage by an impressive 28.6%; numbers went from 5.5 million to 7.1 million. The number of passengers using the Los Angeles light rail, the second largest system in the country, increased 6.0% from 60.2 million to 63.8 million. (2)

These are impressive growth rates but in the context of the total travel task in the US, and especially compared to the proportion of travel carried by car, the absolute increases are very small beer. An added problem is that too many new rail-based public transport projects are boondoggles (e.g. see How cost-effective are new rail transit projects?).

As I’ve noted before many times (e.g. see here, here and here) getting travellers to shift out of their cars in significant numbers will only occur if cars are made less attractive compared to public transport. Making public transport more attractive is very important, but policy-makers also need to give much more attention to taming cars.
  1. Other than school trips, public transport achieves its highest mode share on the journey to work. However commuting accounts for less than 20% of all trip purposes in the US. Public transport’s share of non-work trips is much lower, probably less than half what it is for work trips.
  2. Patronage on the largest light rail system in the US, Boston, fell from 76 million to 72.3 million.

That Westside Earthquake You Just Felt Wasn't the Expo Line, But...


By Ken Alpern, March 18, 2014

ALPERN AT LARGE- That 4.4 earthquake waking us up Monday morning does underscore the need to create good infrastructure in our City and County of Los Angeles!  Furthermore, it underscores the need to not overbuild and overlay an unsustainable overdevelopment nightmare atop this infrastructure. 
There ARE big issues that are dramatically changing the Westside, and the Exposition Light Rail Line will prove to either be the instrument towards properly reconfiguring a Westside for the 21st Century, or the instrument that will create an environmental and planning disaster that will take decades to reverse. 

Unfortunately, the City and County of Los Angeles--long before the Citizens United Supreme Court decision--are led by elected leaders who are all-too-often influenced by "the 1%", which includes wealthy uberdevelopers, chambers of commerce and even public and private sector union lobbyists...rather than those who voted them into office, and who still long for representation, too. 

And, long before the oft-decried Citizens United Supreme Court decision that in effect declared "corporations are people", the same City and County electeds decided to place neighbors and residents (including all those who voted to build and pay for for the Expo Line) as a lower priority than the aforementioned 1% because, to paraphrase Orwell, "all men are created equal, but some are more equal than others." 

Proof positive is the "poison pill" that was the Casden/Sepulveda development, slipped into the Expo Line framework as a way to create a huge development that was purported to be transit-oriented and transit-friendly, but was anything but.  It should have been a Westside Regional Transit Center and Silicon Beach-type of industrial development/jobs center, but was car-oriented and an environmental nightmare. 

The Casden Sepulveda can and should still be an industrial/jobs development, and not the freeway-abutting and unmitigated residential nightmare it now is (or is supposed to be, but still no one really knows what it will look like, a year after a nebulous and potentially illegal "envelope" for this residential overdevelopment was rammed through by the Villaraigosa/pro-developer-contaminated City Planning Commission). 

But the Expo Line, which is years ahead in ridership estimates, still is an excellent idea and a trolley that will move up to 80-90,000 riders a day to/from a Westside (~500,000 residents) through the Mid-City to Downtown and back (several million residents). 

The Expo Line Authority is blessed with first-rate contractors and staff who are making excellent progress towards the creation of the Westside portion of the Expo Line, with utility relocation, bridges and related construction efforts under way at an impressive pace.  The Authority is, overall, doing a pretty good job. 

However, the City of Los Angeles was and is years behind on its Planning efforts, and the Transit Neighborhood Plans project team appears to remain years behind where it ought to be.  I really can't blame the Planning staff as much as I can its politically-subjugated leaders and the political leadership of this City--who, as aforementioned, view our local "1%" entities as higher lifeforms than the rest of us. 

The Expo Line remains a potential economic betterment for the Westside and for the County at large, and will do so not just by creating appropriate infrastructure (parking, shuttles, jobs centers next to the stations, and--oh, yes-WATER) to service this new commercial corridor parallel to the I-10 freeway, but to allow the region to be a nice place to live (attracting jobs and businesses to the region). 

The issue of parks and schools and law enforcement, to say nothing of the unfettered passage of emergency vehicles through what is feared to be an overdevelopment-created constant traffic jam, must be taken into consideration as the Expo Line works its way NOT through a Downtown but through a Westside and Mid-City collection of residential neighborhoods. 

At USC and Downtown, the urban aspect of the Expo Line must be taken into consideration, but--as with the single-family neighborhoods the Expo Line traverses to the west--overdevelopment next to a trolley/light rail line must be avoided.  

The Expo Line, because it shares tracks with the Blue Line in its Downtown segment, has a definite limit to its passenger-carrying capacity--it will NOT carry hundreds of thousands of passengers a day, as will the Wilshire Subway (which is still potentially decades away!). 

And, as the planned testing of trains during the summer of 2015 gets ever closer, the concern of having enough light rail cars to service the second phase of the Expo Line to the Westside also emphasizes the need to not treat the Expo Line as a heavy-rail subway.  Villaraigosa and the previous Metro Board dithered way too long on purchasing the cars, and Zev Yaroslavsky and others have nervously raised a concern about this delay. 

Yet it remains likely that the Expo Line will open in mid-late 2015, and that there will be sufficient cars to serve the public interest--Metro and its staff will scramble and (with Art Leahy at its helm) do what needs to be done.  

Top leadership posts were recently scaled down at Metro, and transit fares increased, which means that Leahy and Metro remains one of the few fiscally-responsible and courageous examples of public-sector management in our modern era.  

So there WAS an earthquake this morning, and there ARE a host of concerns as Planning and Infrastructure remain years behind the construction that need to jolt us all into action. 

The wake-up call we had with our Monday morning jolt mirrors our ongoing reality:  democracy and politics is an ongoing effort for each of...and if we don't heed the current and future earthquakes coming to our neighborhoods, then others will make the big decisions for us.  
And then the shaking really begins in earnest.

A DIY Approach to Slowing a City's Cars


Sarah Goodyear, March 18, 2014

At first glance, they look an awful lot like official city speed-limit signs, bold black letters on a white background. "20 Is Plenty," they say.

Look closer, these signs are not NYC DOT issue. First, they're made of plastic, rather than aluminum, and affixed to signposts with zip ties rather than bolts. They are not reflective, the way real street signs are. And at the bottom, in white letters on black, is the logo of the DIY street safety action group Right of Way.

Liz Patek/Right of Way

The signs are part of a citizen campaign to bring speed limits on residential streets down from 30 to a much safer 20. And if they look professional, it's because they are. The white plastic placards were donated by Brooklyn-based RoadTrafficSigns.com, which the company's content director Conrad Lumm describes as "the Amazon of signs."

Right of Way has been using the custom signs in demonstrations about slowing down New York traffic, a fight that must go through Albany due to the vagaries of state law. Last weekend, the group's members posted them in ten different New York neighborhoods. All are seeking designation as "slow zones" under a city pilot program (which doesn't require Albany's sign-off), and have either been denied or are still waiting for approval.

Lumm says he first found out about Right of Way when the group striped their own bike lanes on Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan last fall. "It caught my attention because it was really ballsy and seems completely necessary," says Lumm. So he got in touch to see how his company could help.
RoadTrafficSigns has partnered with other local nonprofits, including safe street advocates Transportation Alternatives and 596 Acres, a group that reclaims vacant urban land for community use. "It's something we like to do," says Lumm. "It's both good business and allows us to work on issues that we think are important."

The signs are headed up to Albany today as part of a lobbying effort led by a new group called Families for Safe Streets, led by New Yorkers whose children, parents, spouses, and other loved ones have been killed by cars. The group is calling for lower speed limits and aggressive implementation of Mayor Bill De Blasio's Vision Zero plan, which incorporates improved street design and tougher traffic law enforcement.

That last part seems to be ramping up already, with WNYC reporting that tickets for dangerous violations such as speeding and failure to yield are up as much as tenfold in February 2014 over the same month the previous year (although in some precincts, such as the 84th in Brooklyn, they were starting from a negligible base of only 10 total tickets for speeding, failure to yield, and ignoring a signal).

Putting a Price on D.C.'s Worst Commute


By Earl Swift, March 18, 2014

 Putting a Price on D.C.'s Worst Commute

WASHINGTON—For a few giddy moments, it seems I've dodged the torture awaiting commuters into Washington, D.C., most any weekday morning. As I merge onto Interstate 95 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 50 miles from the Pentagon, the traffic around me glides along at the 65-mph speed limit. No brake lights illuminate the predawn dark. I set my cruise control. Perhaps, I dare to think, this won't be so bad.

The illusion ends before I've covered a mile. Without warning or obvious reason, the highway's flow thickens to a viscous dribble. My speed drops to 30, then 15, then an idling roll slower than I can walk. It remains there for a minute before shuddering to zero. I sit.

It's 6:30 a.m. on a typical Monday on the outskirts of the nation's capital, and I'm mired in traffic the Texas A&M Transportation Institute reckons to be the worst in America, trumping even the titanic freeway logjams of Los Angeles. Here are highways so notoriously overtaxed that even on weekends, "speed" is more lovely abstraction than realistic goal. Here is a circumferential interstate — the famed Washington Beltway — that has become synonymous with stress.

 Of all of Washington's snarled roads, perhaps none are more feared, despised, and lamented than the roughly 41 miles of I-95 between Fredericksburg and the Beltway, and I-395's nine-mile spur from there to the Potomac. It's a journey that should take under an hour but typically takes two or more in the morning. And in the evening, half again as long.

My Camry inches northward, the sky lightening to a leaden gray, the air stinking of overheated brakes. For two generations, Virginia transportation officials have battled the route's glacial pace with a succession of innovative prescriptions. In 1969, they installed the first reversible bus lanes in America, on I-395. A few years later they built carpooling in the same lanes — the country's first courtship with high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Later they extended HOV 18 miles southward, into the fast-rising suburbs and exurbs straddling I-95.

The route remains a quagmire, just the same. So now the state is embarking on another fix. With financing from private investors, Virginia is converting the HOV lanes south of Washington to high occupancy-toll lanes, or HOT lanes. These express lanes, like 20-some similar projects in cities from coast to coast, will enable solo motorists to drive alongside carpoolers — for a price.

If the new system works as the Virginia Department of Transportation hopes, it will cull a fat number of commuters from I-95's general-purpose lanes and speed the trip for everyone. The private investors may earn enough in tolls to retire their debts and make some money to boot. But the new arrangement differs from those already in place elsewhere, and with the differences come questions about how much relief it can offer. Some won't be resolved until the new lanes are up and running early next year.

All of which is to say that we're soon to witness a complex and very expensive experiment in the future of transportation.

The rush-hour nightmare in northern Virginia is partly the product of topography. Geographic obstructions funnel travel into a narrow corridor occupied by I-95 and its smaller and equally congested parent, U.S. 1, and little else. It's also partly the product of Northern Virginia real estate, which rises in price as distance from the District (and the exasperations of the daily commute) falls. Not many years ago, Fredericksburg was an inconceivable distance for daily commuting; not so today, and the suburbs continue to spread like a stain, pushing farther south and west every year.

Courtesy Virginia Department of Transportation.

VDOT's attempts to address the corridor's congestion by siphoning traffic from the general-purpose lanes have succeeded, at least in part. The bus lanes proved a hit 45 years ago — a Washington Post rush-hour race into the District saw a bus beat a car by 32 minutes, and before long bus commuters outnumbered their automotive counterparts on I-395. Likewise, the HOV lanes have consistently moved more people than the regular lanes at rush hour, according to VDOT. In fact, says the agency, they're the most successful HOV lanes in the country.

Be that as it may, the lanes are underused. As I sit immobile in my Camry at Dumfries, where the HOV lanes now have their southern terminus — and where an electronic sign predicts that I won't reach the Beltway for another 52 minutes — the procession of cars entering the faster lanes amounts to a slim rivulet leaving the interstate's main flow.

So the state partnered with a joint venture of two private firms — the Texas-based Fluor Corporation and an Australian toll road outfit, Transurban Group — to convert the existing I-95 HOV lanes to accept toll-paying customers, and to extend them into Stafford County, Virginia, 27 miles south of the Beltway. As originally planned, the reversible HOT lanes would continue inside the Beltway in the median of I-395 to the District's very edge: the 14th Street Bridge, where the highway crosses the Potomac. Drivers using the lanes would enjoy a high-speed shot from the far-flung suburbs all the way into town.

In fact, they're all but guaranteed that. A key part of the $922.6 million deal — under which the state will supply $82.6 million of the project's cost, and Fluor-Transurban will pony up the balance in cash and debt — is that the HOT lanes will keep flowing at 55 mph.

Fluor-Transurban, which will recoup its investment through the toll income it generates over 76 years, will maintain that flow through "dynamic" pricing, which makes a commodity of a commuter's time. "There is a value to a less-congested lane that someone driving alone might be willing to pay for," says Philip Shucet, a Norfolk-based consultant who led VDOT as the agreement took shape. "Congestion creates a demand for a freer-flowing lane; therefore, because of the demand, you can charge for the supply of that lane."

Fifty minutes into my journey, traffic in I-95's general-purpose lanes chugs along at 15 mph. HOV traffic, a blur to my left, shares the median with towering heaps of dirt and earth-moving gear. Construction of the new HOT lanes is nearly 70 percent complete, according to Fluor-Transurban, and on schedule for an early 2015 opening.
•       •       •       •       •
A taste of what motorists can expect is already available in the capital region, for the I-95 project is the second phase of two in the state's partnership with Fluor-Transurban. The first was the installation of HOT lanes on a 14-mile stretch of the Beltway's curving western side, from its junction with I-95 north to just above the Dulles Toll Road. Portions of the highway now shoulder nearly a quarter-million vehicles a day.

Renderings of traffic flows on the 95 Express Lanes.

The 495 Express Lanes, as they're officially called, opened in November 2012 after four years of construction. They cost $2.07 billion, according to the Federal Highway Administration, which covered the replacement of more than 50 bridges and overpasses and the creation of several new HOT-only entry and exit points. The public-private pact is structured much like that on I-95: in exchange for covering most of the bill ($349 million in cash, plus debt service on more than $1 billion in loans and bonds), Fluor-Transurban will operate the lanes for the coming 74 years, after which they revert to the state.

"VDOT owns the road," says Transurban spokesman Mike McGurk. "We're essentially just renting."
The Beltway lanes are not reversible. Rather, two in each direction are separated from the general-purpose lanes by a line of flexible pylons and linked to exits by dedicated ramps. When I entered them on a weekday midmorning in early March, the whole northbound trip cost $6.75; reaching the I-66 interchange would set me back $3.35, and the edge city of Tyson's Corner, $5.05.

Those prices struck me as steep until I buzzed past stacking traffic on the regular lanes at Annandale, a denser clog at I-66, and a mile-long clot at Tyson's Corner. The Camry was making a steady 72 mph. I covered the 14 miles in under 14 minutes, which was downright surreal on that road at that time of day.

When I headed the other way, against the traffic, the toll was $2.55 all the way to the Springfield Interchange, where the Beltway meets I-95 and the I-395 spur into town. I didn't have to hunt for change. Both Virginia projects are designed to accept only electronic payment, through a transponder affixed to each vehicle's windshield. Those motorists who travel alone can use a regular EZ Pass, and those who carpool, an EZ Pass Flex.

The Flex model features a switch that converts the unit from toll-paying to HOV operation. When a driver enters the HOT lanes toting fewer than two passengers, the Flex unit operates as a standard EZ Pass. But drivers that qualify for HOV status merely need flip a switch on the box, excusing the car from the toll. As the vehicle approaches the HOT lanes, an electronic receiver will detect the transponder's HOV setting and alert a Virginia State Trooper posted nearby (and paid for by the partnership) to eyeball the passing vehicle to ensure that it's playing by the rules.

"They also have technology in their cars that can communicate with the infrastructure," says McGurk of the troopers. "So even if they're traveling behind a car, they'll know whether that car has identified itself as an HOV vehicle."
•       •       •       •       •
Now for the questions, the first being: Will the I-95 HOT lanes attract a sufficient number of non-HOV users to make a dent in the traffic? So far the Beltway lanes have not enticed the number of motorists, or generated the level of revenues, the partners expected. Last year, Transurban figured it would take in $60.2 million; revenues actually totaled less than a third of that amount ($17.2 million). Weekday use was expected to reach 66,000 trips by year's end; reality delivered about 38,000.

This is in keeping with the early performance of HOT lanes in other U.S. metro areas. Revenues have disappointed in Atlanta, Houston, and Seattle. McGurk blames the novelty of the experience. "It's the first time D.C. has ever seen dynamic tolling, and an EZ Pass requirement," he says. "There's some education left to do. There are still a significant number of drivers out there who do not have an EZ Pass. It's taking some time for people to understand how to take advantage."

Even so, says McGurk, "there are good trends." Toll income rose 18 percent from the second to third quarter of last year, and by another 24.2 percent by year's end, despite a flattening in the number of trips in the lanes late in 2013. Usage jumped by more than 60 percent over the first year of operation, he says, and Transurban has "heard great feedback from customers who take the route." The consortium, which recently refinanced its obligations, anticipates "consistent growth."

An important lesson is that "people tend to use it episodically, rather than all the time," says J. Douglas Koelemay, director of Virginia's Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships. "The morning they have that early meeting, it's important for them to move quickly, and they're happy to pay the toll. On other days, when they're not in such a hurry, maybe they don't mind taking longer." Fluor-Transurban "recognizes that it's building a long-term business," says Koelemay, noting that the consortium has refinanced the venture.

There are other broad questions — including the ongoing debate about whether or not HOT lanes are fair to low-income drivers — but in the case of the I-95 project there's one especially vexing worry. As a result of a legal standoff with Arlington County, the I-95 HOT lanes will now extend only 29 miles, to just inside the Beltway, instead of stretching 36 miles and taking commuters all the way from the exurbs to the Potomac. At this abrupt end point, the interstate's express lanes will become HOV-only. Toll-paying motorists will be dumped back into the general population.
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By the time I reach the Springfield Interchange I've been on the road for 61 minutes. Just after sunup I slip beneath an overpass marking the first exit on I-395, at Edsall Road. Up ahead, crews are already at work in the median on the primer-painted bones of a massive flyover, which arcs from the future HOT lanes, curves over northbound I-395, and swoops down to merge into the freeway's slow lane. This is the Turkeycock flyover, the northern terminus of the HOT lanes project. Here, seven miles shy of the Potomac, toll-paying commuters will be forced to leave their carpooling fellow travelers to rejoin 395's stop-and-start traffic.

Construction of the 495 Express Lanes near Tyson's Corner.

What will happen? Will monolithic jams erupt as the merging traffic re-enters the mainstream? Does the project merely relocate and compress the morning nightmare? Will commuters, recognizing that the HOT lanes offer them an express ride to gridlock, forego the toll route altogether?

"I don't know how that's going to work," says Mark Dudenhefer, a former state delegate from Stafford County who suffers the I-95 commute every weekday. "How would you like to be the guy who pays whatever the toll is — from, say, $5 to $15 — and you don't get to where you need to go? You get forced back into the regular lanes, and you have bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic. What have you really saved? It's difficult to understand."

This is no idle worry, for the I-395 leg of the commute is often the toughest, as I find during my excursion. It takes me 23 minutes to cover the less than three miles from the Turkeycock flyover to the Arlington County line, which I cross at 2 mph. It takes another 18 to traverse the roughly four miles to the Pentagon's southwest corner, looming off to the highway's left. Another five minutes moves me half the length of the building's south wall.

The partners forged on, says Steve Titunik, a VDOT spokesman, because commuting times should nonetheless fall. The surviving mileage includes a new general-purpose lane and dedicated HOT lane ramps at one busy cross-street that should loosen the knot on I-395. Dudenhefer, who says he was involved in the project's early stages as a county supervisor, says holding out for a perfect solution could leave everyone in the same place 15 years from now.

"I don't think we could afford to wait," he says.
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This thing could go any number of ways. It could spawn new and fearsome jams on I-395, choking Arlington County with the exhaust of idling legions of cars. It could prove an improvement over the current, wearying daily grind. It could convince commuters who've shied away from carpooling that HOV is the only practical way to get a car into D.C. The HOT lanes could be so popular, and inspire so fierce a public demand for their extension to the Potomac, that talks between state and county resume.

Fact is, there's no telling what will happen, which makes the 95 Express Lanes' opening in ten or eleven months an occasion worth watching. Koelemay figures the truncated project, while "not the final or most elegant solution," is "in itself important." It'll bring some relief, he predicts. "And it does not preclude our coming to an agreement with Arlington to go into Arlington or through Arlington. If you do it in a way that doesn't diminish your opportunity to get to the next piece, I think you're OK.

In the short term, some commuters may be satisfied by any tonic to their daily pain, no matter how mild. My experiment ends at 8:35 a.m., when I pull off I-395 just shy of the river and meander my way to Reagan National Airport. I have spent 125 minutes in the car. I have driven exactly 50 miles. By current standards, that's not a particularly bad start to the day.