ARLINGTON --Tom Coughlin looks forward to the day when high-occupancy-vehicle lanes are a relic of the past on America's roads, like leaded gasoline and emergency call boxes.
"HOV lanes were a stupid idea to begin with, and in practice they have been a disaster," said Coughlin, a real estate broker who lives in downtown Dallas. He said he has never heard an argument in favor of HOV lanes, other than from "the bureaucrats, consultants and blow-up-doll manufacturers who defend it."
He may not have to wait long. The car pool lanes, which rose to prominence during the energy crisis of the 1970s and have become a common in major metro areas nationwide, are becoming obsolete.
Transportation planners in Dallas-Fort Worth and other regions, who until just a few years ago were still planning to aggressively build and expand their HOV networks, are now quickly working to convert HOV lanes into hybrid toll lanes. Under that concept, the lanes would still be separate from a freeway's main lanes, but drivers of single-occupant vehicles could use them by paying an electronic toll.
Carpoolers could still use the managed toll lanes at a discount.
Denver, Houston, Minneapolis and San Diego are among the metro areas where HOV lanes are being replaced with managed toll lanes.Critics of HOV lanes say this shift in transportation policy is proof that HOV lanes are a failed experiment. They say it was an attempt by government to force Americans to change their behavior and embrace carpooling, despite research showing that nearly 90 percent of adults drive to work alone. .
"They are truly social engineers because it would be their desire to get people out of their cars. But this is not 50 to 75 years ago, when most people came from a common point of origin and drove to a common destination," said Coughlin. "The likelihood you would find anybody living within a mile of you that you could ever commute with you is remote, not to mention if you ever needed your car for work."
But many transportation planners say HOV lanes have served a vital role in providing alternatives to high gas prices and commuting alone. They agree that many HOV corridors will be converted into toll lanes within five to 10 years, but they say it's a natural progression, not a failure.
"We have recognized over the years that HOV lanes have transitioned beyond their initial purpose," said Dan Lamers, senior program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. .
"The economic advantage of HOV lanes has changed," he said. "Back in the '70s, it was gas prices. In the '80s and '90s, the advantage become time of travel. But they still move people more efficiently than the main lanes, and because of that we're still getting the air-quality benefits."HOV lanes began as bus-only lanes in Washington and northern Virginia, according to the Federal Highway Administration..
Van pools and car pools were eventually allowed to use the lanes to maximize space, and eventually car pools became the dominant mode.
In some areas, mainly in the Northeast, cars had to have four occupants to use the lanes. In Houston, the requirement remains three occupants.
In Dallas, the first HOV lane opened in 1991 on I-30. The area now has 84 miles of HOV lanes, including about four miles of I-30 in Arlington, and requires at least two occupants per vehicle.
Critics often pan the Dallas-area HOV lanes for appearing nearly empty, although supporters say they carry as many people as the crowded main lanes during peak periods. HOV lanes, they say, appear empty only because their traffic is moving much faster than on the main lanes.
Dallas' system is managed by Dallas Area Rapid Transit, an agency that also operates light rail and buses in the eastern Metroplex but doesn't have jurisdiction in Fort Worth and much of the west.
During the past year, DART officials have discussed charging tolls on HOV lanes and allowing single-occupant vehicles to take up the unused space. By one estimate, DART could eventually generate an extra $19 million a year by converting the HOV network to toll lanes.
But critics have said the North Texas HOV system needs new management. Among them is Bill Meadows, a Texas Transportation Commission member from Fort Worth.
Meadows notes that by 2015 several highway projects that are currently being built with managed toll lanes will be open. Among them: The Texas 114/121 DFW Connector project in Grapevine, the Texas 121/183/Loop 820 project in Northeast Tarrant County and LBJ Express lanes in Dallas. Motorists on those roads will be encouraged to pay a toll and use the managed lanes, and the revenue will pay off the road debt.
What concerns Meadows and others is that those new managed lanes in several places would merge with traditional HOV lanes. Under the current design, a single-occupant vehicle could legally use a managed lane by paying a toll but then merge into an HOV lane and get pulled over for violating the two-person minimum.
Meadows has advocated that DART, the council of governments, the Transportation Department and the North Texas Tollway Authority negotiate a new HOV plan, with the goal of completing a makeover of the system in two to three years.
The tollway authority, which has years of experience collecting tolls through its electronic TollTags, likely will play a larger role, he said.
DART would play a lesser role. It has lost control of the HOV lanes on Interstate 635, which are being converted to managed toll lanes as part of the LBJ Express project. Of DART's role, Meadows said.
Of the existing HOV lanes, Meadows said: "Let's re-engineer them. If the goal was to add capacity, save fuel, reduce air pollution, anecdotally what I see is they're not particularly well-used. We've invested huge amounts of money in facilities that are not being used as they could be or should be."