If you ask your neighbor what a HOT lane is, they may look at you as if you’re talking about some kind of new bowling alley or a seedy website. Almost no one is aware of the HOT lane scheme or a “playbook” by transportation agencies to convert highways into “pay-as-you-drive” modes of transportation.
Interstate 77 is the latest U.S. highway targeted as a candidate for HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes. This is a project that not only impacts I-77, but is likely to impact many other major highways in North Carolina. Proof in point: the NCDOT is on record as saying that they are looking at adding HOT lanes to other highways in North Carolina. The goal of their I-77 project from Charlotte to Mooresville, as acknowledged by Bill Thunberg of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission (as mentioned on Statesville Radio 1400 a.m.), is to change our driving behavior (via carpooling) and not to ease congestion on I-77 for the existing lanes. (Listen to the radio story called Meeting Concerning I-77 Widening Project to be Held in Mooresville at http://www.wsicweb.com/ , dated March 13).
We recommend that you take a look at this document High Occupancy/Toll Lanes. What makes this report called High Occupancy/Toll Lanes: Phasing in Congestion Pricing A Lane At A Time by authors Fielding and Klein both alarming and relevant to the proposal for I-77 and of concern for all N.C. citizens is the following:
1) NCDOT/politicians are calling these toll lanes HOT lanes as this playbook suggests.
2) NCDOT is starting this scheme by taking over the HOV lane on I-77. This is what the authors prescribe in order to condition drivers to get used to HOT lanes – by starting with converting an HOV lane. For those who currently use I-77’s HOV lane that requires two or more drivers, this means that couples driving to work or carpoolers and work crews of two, will need to move over to the general purpose “free” lanes or pay to use the HOT lanes.
3) I recently asked an area commissioner, “Why do I feel like I’m being conditioned and manipulated to accept a plan that the overwhelming majority of people are opposed to?” His answer, with a straight face, was “that’s what our job as politicians is – to condition and manipulate you – otherwise you would not accept any of our proposals.” Since it was clear by his demeanor that he was not joking or being sarcastic, I countered his view of his role as a town commissioner by saying, “that is not the way citizens want their elected officials to lead – by conditioning and manipulating citizens”. He brushed aside my concern and replied, “Well, that’s the way it is.” Conditioning drivers or behavior modification is a suggested tactic from this document.
4) While some lawmakers could respond to this document by saying that they are working on legislation to ensure that existing highways are not turned into HOT lanes, the current N.C. Senate and House bills (filed the week of March 3) under consideration do not prevent HOT lanes from taking over existing HOV lanes or new lanes from any highway. That bit of information was reported to the Charlotte Observer during their interview with Rep. Bill Brawley who signed onto House Bill H267. New lanes, new highways and HOV lanes are all targets for HOT lane projects. Also a bill or amendment can always be passed to say that the NCDOT has the authority to convert any lane (new or old) into a HOT lane. They may also say that this document was written in 1993 and does not pertain to 2013. Well, it takes about 20 years for new government plans to get implemented and travel their way across the country – these HOT lanes have been in use and frustrated drivers for years in states such as California, Florida, Texas and in Atlanta.
5) NCDOT and NC politicians acknowledge that the HOT lane scheme does not ease congestion on existing lanes. They say it only provides a more predictable ride (at least 43 mph in the case of I-77) for those willing to pay whatever the price the private company determines to charge at that minute.
6) During the March 13th meeting in Mooresville, NCDOT representatives would not say how much the tolls would be, and it has been stated consistently that there is no ceiling as to how high the tolls will rise. Per this HOT lane document by Fielding and Klein, the tolls would go as high as needed to push drivers out of the HOT lanes so that only those with enough money or desperate enough will use the highway.
7) The end goal of this scheme is to have people avoid using the roads and only use them if they are willing to pay for the “privilege” of a highway already paid by our tax dollars. Yes, they actually refer to using our tax-paid roads as a privilege.
8) These toll lanes are another form of taxation and they especially hurt lower and middle income earners since the fees are a higher percentage of their take-home pay. For instance, a high income earner paying $10 to use a toll lane to get to work is not as impacted as someone who makes $10 an hour. Thus, using the toll lane could cost the $10/hour worker an hour of work just to get his or her job.
9) This model has been used in many other states and it has been a major debacle. Not only is congestion worse and drivers are angered, but some of the private companies have gone bankrupt and left the states holding the debt.
Finally, it’s important to note that the authors of this document adhere to an extreme view of Libertarianism. They work or have worked as employees and/or consultants for the federal government. Some Republicans “leaders” (note: not the Republican voters) say they accept such a plan as HOT lanes on I-77 because they believe in “free market economics” and market demand for our road use. If this is what they truly believe, then they should be refunding us the tax dollars that were used to build the highway in the first place. Meanwhile, far left liberals may accept the HOT lane approach if they believe people should not be using cars anymore, and instead piling into a bus, crowded train or walking and biking. That may work in some locations (Tokyo, New York City, Paris…or if you live next to your workplace, the grocery store, school, dentist and doctor – not likely), but it does not work for our suburban and rural environments.
Our state and local governments are responsible for properly prioritizing their budgets, and responsibly managing them so that there are funds for basic infrastructure needs – such as roads, schools, fire and police, etc. Citizens opposed to HOT lanes are Republicans, Democrats and Independents. We do not understand why our leaders in Raleigh are selling-out our tax-paid roads to large for-profit entities. (Did I mention that at least three of the four private tolling companies bidding on I-77 are also foreign?)
~ Vallee Bubak, Proud Volunteer of WidenI77.Org