More commuters doubling up to put HOV lanes to work

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Another morning, another traffic jam. Tapping the brake pedal, you curse the cars and buses that whiz by in the car-pool lane. Your taxes paid for that strip of pavement that looks awfully empty.

Actually, it's not.

High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are carrying a third of all Seattle-area freeway users. And within the city, HOV lanes serve twice as many people as a general-purpose lane during peak commutes, according to a new study by the Washington State Transportation Center.

Local HOV ridership grew 17 percent between 1998 and 2000. One of every 25 freeway users switched from single-person trips to some type of ridesharing during the two years.

National comparisons are unavailable, but HOV-lane use in Seattle appears to be higher than in any other metropolitan area except Washington, D.C., speculates Mark Hallenbeck, a University of Washington professor who co-authored the report.

About 200 miles of HOV corridor have been created here since 1984 at a cost of $1 billion. Earlier this month, the last three miles in each direction were opened on Interstate 405 between Bothell and Lynnwood, creating a ring of HOV lanes around Lake Washington. Later this year, Sound Transit will begin a $500 million program to construct the region's first six HOV-only freeway interchanges.

The goal is to help carpools and transit reach their destinations faster, creating an incentive for people to ride together on a finite amount of pavement.

But as traffic worsens in the Seattle area, many question whether HOV lanes are relieving congestion. There's also growing sentiment to open the lanes to all drivers during noncommute times.

Skeptics of the system, both here and nationally, contend that overall traffic flow could improve if the HOV or diamond lanes were opened to all users. They say the lanes are less productive than they seem because of incidental users, such as a single adult transporting a child, who are not reducing regional traffic.

"The answer is not how many people travel in HOVs, it's how many additional people travel in the corridor," said state Sen. Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island.

The Transportation Center study, intended to help transportation officials assess the speed and efficiency of the HOV system, is based on data collected from vehicle-counting magnetic loops in the pavement, bus ridership figures and actual counts from freeway overpasses. Peak hours are defined as 6-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m.

The study found that HOV ridership was highest on southbound Interstate 5 approaching Northgate, which transported an average 5,319 persons per hour during the three-hour morning commute, almost triple a general lane's volume.

In Newcastle, the Interstate 405 HOV lanes carry as many people as both general lanes combined during the worst hours.

The study also took into account motorists who illegally use the carpool lanes. It found the most cheating occurred on westbound Highway 520, where 8 percent of HOV-lane travelers approaching the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge violated the three-riders-or-more rule there.

The California Department of Transportation considers an HOV lane successful if it carries 1,800 people in the busiest hour. In Seattle, 13 of the 22 locations in the study beat that average for an entire three- or four-hour peak period, and others are close.

HOV lanes can seem emptier than they really are because traffic flows better than in general lanes, so there is ample space between vehicles, said Dave McCormick, chief traffic engineer for the Seattle area.

In a few places, even HOV lanes might choke on their popularity.

Aaron Ostrom, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Washington, sees so many two-person carpools on I-5 at Northgate in the afternoon that he worries congestion is hampering the speed gains for buses.

"If you went to a three-person lane, that would solve the problem," he said.

Around the country, HOV lanes have had a mixed reception.

Carpool lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston have generally been effective, transportation agencies report. But four years ago, New Jersey removed HOV restrictions from one interstate after finding that the lanes carried few people and cheating was rampant.

New HOV lanes in Hampton Roads, Va., carry fewer than 7 percent of freeway users and were called "traffic mismanagement at its worst" by a newspaper there.

Locally, the lowest performance was on southbound I-405 in Tukwila, where only 19 percent of riders took the diamond lane.

That situation makes backups in the nearby Renton S-curves all the more frustrating for drivers such as Barry Butler of Woodinville.

"I know that whenever I run errands, if I have to go on 405, I grab one of my kids to make it easier," he confesses. A Kent woman was recently caught with a mannequin as a passenger after her move into the HOV lane caused an eight-vehicle collision in the S-curves.

Butler, an airline pilot, said he has driven alone in the HOV lanes about 10 times in the past year when traffic clogged the general lanes. If he's ever busted, he could provide a compelling excuse: If he waits in the general-lane backup, a flight could be delayed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

State Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, said Gov. Gary Locke or the state Department of Transportation should open the HOV lanes to all drivers during nonpeak hours, in advance of the statewide gas-tax vote in November.

"I think it would go a long way, if they want this transportation package passed, to show there is some credibility, that we were using every inch of pavement to its fullest," Rossi said.

Some transit supporters fear such proposals are a ploy to eventually repeal the HOV system.

Linda Mullen, a state Transportation Department spokeswoman, replies: "Actually, by showing the public we are willing to look at it and be flexible in our approach, we can strengthen support for the program."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or