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DC-Area Commuters Are Pretty Unusual

August 26th, 2008 . by economistmom

Two stories in the Washington Post over the past few days highlight why those who live and work ”inside the Beltway” here in the DC-area are pretty darn weird.

In policy wonkish, rational style, we can discuss the wisdom of more flexible work schedules (such as the four-day work week) as a great way to save energy, money, and commuting time–what seems to be a win-win for employers and employees (and the environment) alike.  From Saturday’s story by Lori Aratani:

…a growing number of businesses and state and local governments from Fairfax to Detroit to Salt Lake City are pondering a strategy for saving on utility costs and being kind to the environment: telling their workers, stay home.

Congress, too, is weighing in on the merits of flexible work schedules. This month, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) proposed that more federal workers shift to a four-day, 10-hour-a-day workweek to help eliminate unnecessary commuting and reduce road congestion. He asked the Office of Personnel Management to analyze whether such a shift would be possible and report back by the end of this month.

And while it may be true that “flextime” has growing appeal all over the country, because Americans all over the country feel the pinch of higher transportation costs, and Americans everywhere value their leisure time, the DC-area is notorious for our mega-dose combination of affluence, elitism, and impatience.  Where else would people be willing to pay maybe $40/day to drive on new “high-occupancy tolls” (HOT) lanes–to save a few minutes time?  From Monday’s story by Eric M. Weiss:

Builders of new high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on the Beltway are betting $2 billion that there are enough drivers in the Washington region willing to pay tolls that could add up to $40 a day.

Construction started last month on 14 miles of HOT lanes that will stretch between the Springfield interchange and just north of the Dulles Toll Road. Tolls will fluctuate based on traffic — the heavier the traffic, the higher the tolls — to ensure that the lanes remain free-flowing.

But what the builders of the lanes are really selling is time. They are counting on frustrated commuters who have missed Little League games, scrambled to pick up children at day care or are forced to leave home two hours early for a commute that should take an hour.

The question is whether there will be enough of those people when the lanes open in five years.

“This is a crapshoot,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation and an early proponent of HOT lanes. “You just never know until the road is open.”

Commuters in the Washington region are affluent enough and time-pressed enough to make it work, according to two internal traffic and revenue studies sent to potential investors in the project.

The studies, commissioned by Transurban and potential investors, say the HOT lanes will be so successful that tolls could be increased 25 percent above levels needed to keep traffic moving and there would still be enough takers, even in a tough economic climate.

“If it saves me time, then I don’t care about paying the toll,” said Nikhir Kumar, 35, of Reston, who commutes to Tysons Corner and can spend up to two hours in Beltway traffic. “You can’t put a dollar price on spending time with my wife and 18-month-old.”

Using an average rush-hour toll of $1.54 a mile, as projected in the studies, a 6.3- mile morning commute between Route 29 and Braddock Road in Fairfax County would cost $9.70 and save 90 seconds over the Beltway’s “free lanes.” That translates to $6.47 for each minute saved — an hourly rate of $388, which would make some K Street lawyers jealous.

That’s crazy! — an hourly rate of $388 is equivalent to a salary of over $800,000/year!  (Most of us are not nearly that affluent.)  With DC-area workers willing to spend that kind of money, with little care, it’s no wonder we can’t get a handle on our federal budget deficit.  (And that crazy Mr. Kumar–he must really love his wife!)

A couple other observations of mine regarding how DC-area commuters are unusual (let me know if you agree or have other observations): 

(i) Despite all the congestion and slow traffic on the roads here, many drivers somehow feel they’re “entitled” to having several car lengths of open space in front of them in their lane.  (If you cut into their “open view”, well, you deserve a horn and maybe even a finger thrown in for good measure–especially if they were unable to speed up fast enough to close you out of the lane change.) 

(ii) People here don’t seem to know how to drive in the snow–or the rain, or too much sunshine, for that matter.  Anything but sort of overcast but dry weather, and the roads turn into parking lots.  Maybe it’s because so many people who live and work around here did not grow up around here, so not very many people have a lifetime of DC-driving experience.  Or maybe folks here are just too caught up in themselves to worry about the negative spillover effects of their bad driving skills and behavior on others.

7 Responses to “DC-Area Commuters Are Pretty Unusual”

  1. comment number 1 by: Hmmmmm

    I don’t feel “entitled” to several cars lengths of space. The law actually requires two car lengths for safety. Most of thet time it is impossible to achieve. The best is when you use your blinker to change lanes and everyone speeds up to close the gap. Thanks a lot buddy.

    The HOT lanes are going to be a disaster both financially and in actual practice. VDOT is ramming these down our throats because there is no money in the VA budget to repair or replace the 30 year old bridges. You should really look into the financials of this project…the more it is used, the more the state will have to pay the developer..Huhhh!?! Also no HOT lanes on the Maryland side.

  2. comment number 2 by: Patrick R. Sullivan

    ‘Where else would people be willing to pay maybe $40/day to drive on new “high-occupancy tolls” (HOT) lanes–to save a few minutes time?’

    California: http://www.91expresslanes.com/


  3. Depending on speed, “several car lengths of open space in front of them” might actually be the correct following distance given the minimum 2 second rule.

  4. comment number 4 by: Len

    You way underestimated the equivalent salary on your blog today because the $388 is after-tax. Pre-tax, it would be $647 per hour (at a 40% fed+state tax rate), or over $1.3 million per year.

    That’s why you should bike to work. Congestion is almost never a problem on the bike path on weekdays. :-)

  5. comment number 5 by: economistmom

    Len: Wow– so these should be called “HOT MILLIONAIRE” lanes! Maybe that’s a way to get single folks who aren’t millionaires interested in driving (leisurely) in those lanes! ;)

  6. comment number 6 by: Unsympathetic

    I’ve lived and worked in 7 different states. Sorry to say, DC commuters’ collective inability to drive isn’t significantly different than Philly’s - or Denver’s, or Chicago’s, or… Some people understand the concept that we’re all just trying to get home, and not everybody views their steel box as an ego extension.

    Any increase in lanes ends up increasing the traffic flow. The speed of the outerbelt ends up being the max speed through the smallest constriction. I wouldn’t be the first user of a toll road, but if it’s >10 minutes of savings.. maybe when schedule demands it.

    Otherwise, it’s time for an audiobook..

  7. comment number 7 by: Cheapmom

    “With DC-area workers willing to spend that kind of money, with little care, it’s no wonder we can’t get a handle on our federal budget deficit.”

    I agree completely. Hence the reason for our current economy bust - let’s get back to reality & practicality!