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?