HOT Lanes Are Working, But Not in Massachusetts

How long until we get serious about innovating our transportation system?

Both Washington DC and Boston are ringed by Beltways: 128/95 and 495/95, respectively. But expansion projects on each road highlight radically different approaches to dealing with congestion and innovative finance.

In Massachusetts, a project adding a lane to 5.5 miles of Route 128 is finally done. The project has added a lane of capacity that will allow MassDOT to put an end to the practice of allowing travel in the breakdown lanes. Add-a-lane has its merits and the completion of construction should improve traffic flow, but the nature of the project—adding a traffic lane to replace part-time usage of the breakdown line—limits the benefits.

Meanwhile, Virginia has a done a much more ambitious project by adding multiple lanes to heavily congested 495 over a 14-mile period, building multiple new interchanges and installing an all-electronic toll system. It operates on a variable rate tolling system that’s designed to provide free flow speeds under all conditions.

To be fair, it’s a much larger project than the one in Massachusetts. Virginia was able to create this capacity using a public-private partnership that used the future toll revenue to limit the state’s investment and exposure to future maintenance costs.

Massachusetts has not done a very convincing job of considering these types of projects. The 2009 transportation reform bill called for the appointment of a standing commission to consider public-private partnerships. No one was even appointed to the commission—nevermind meeting or considering proposals.

Now, there’s a proposal for a public-private partnership to expand Route 3 on the South Shore. The Globe has already opined against it, using the pejorative term ‘Lexus Lanes’ to refer to tolled lanes, ignoring a body of evidence that tolled express lanes are one of the least regressive forms of funding and, if they come in the form of expanded capacity, provide a benefit to non-users on the free roadway.

In a time of constrained revenues and undeniable transportation needs, how much longer can we afford to dismiss innovative forms of transportation finance?

Steve Poftak
Steve Poftak Steve Poftak, Contributor at Boston Magazine