Ed Driscoll

HOT & Bothered

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“High-Occupancy Toll lanes: another nightmare from the suburbs-hating traffic planners,” another intensely detailed article from Jonathan Last in response, at the Weekly Standard:

HOT lanes are often derisively referred to as “Lexus lanes”—that is, special roads where Richie Rich can speed along in his roadster, a monocle in one eye and hundred-dollar bills flying out the window. The defenders of HOT lanes don’t like this term. After a Washington Post columnist questioned the Beltway’s HOT lane project in 2012 using the L-word, Toll Roads News, the industry’s bible, ran an editorial calling the columnist a “lame-brained lefty.” It defended HOT lanes thus:

Of course the toll express lanes will be used more by those with more money. Only a simple-minded leftist sees that as an argument against them. For a start the wealthy are often very productive people, and if they are prepared to pay their way to avoid congestion then both they and society benefit.

Even by the standards of libertarian money-worship, this is strong stuff. Yet populist concerns about HOT lanes aren’t specious. For one thing, citizens should always be wary when the government conveys public land to a private entity. They should be doubly so when the private party gets the land free. And triply so when the private party has no competition for the gift.

HOT lane advocates are quick to point out that surveys suggest a wide spread of income among users. Indeed, it seems that most drivers use HOT lanes only occasionally and that “regular” customers are a minority. Even so, the income of HOT lane users does tend to be higher than average, which makes it hard not to see the lanes as a transfer of wealth up the economic ladder. The government gives away public land. It funds the public portion of the construction costs. It provides loans and bonds to the private construction company. And then, once the HOT lanes are operational, it pays for the state troopers who patrol them and the crews who keep the snow off of them. That’s an awful lot of public resources being lavished on a good designed for folks at the higher end of the earnings scale in the name of some nebulous public benefit. It’s a bit like the massive government handouts to electric car manufacturers, such as Tesla, which have had the effect of subsidizing luxury cars for the rich and famous. Only it’s more obnoxious, because when Ben Affleck drives around in his Tesla, he has to sit in the same traffic as you do in your Ford. That is, unless he hops on a HOT lane. In which case your tax dollars will have made his drive both nicer and faster.

Yet what makes HOT lanes truly unfair is that they discriminate on price, not value. Think about the economic choice offered to a driver as he approaches a HOT lane on-ramp at the Springfield mixing bowl. At the moment he arrives, both the HOT and main lanes look clear. The HOT sign flashes a price at him. Perhaps it’s $3.85. The key to understanding the nature of HOT lanes is that at that moment the driver has no idea what the price represents.

That’s a lengthy excerpt, but at 4000 words, it’s a lengthy article. As a follow-up in the form of a quick rant that’s unsafe at any speed, here’s my 13-year old article, originally written for a magazine devoted to Nissan Z-Cars, exploring why I loathe commuter lanes. It was written in the summer of 2001, a couple of months before there were far more important things to start worrying about.