In Our View: Sunday, April 28, 2002
HOV project has split public opinion, but actual use should be the yardstick
So, half of Clark County residents surveyed think the high-occupancy vehicle lane on Interstate 5 ought to be made permanent, and half think it should be scrapped.
Too bad we can't go with half an HOV lane and be done with it.
Even if that were practical, it's still too early to draw any definite conclusions about the HOV experiment -- just as it's too early to pull the plug, notwithstanding the attempts by some state lawmakers to do exactly that. The lane has been operating for just six months; that's not enough time for driver habits to shift and the HOV lane's effectiveness to be fairly assessed in all seasons and conditions.
Besides, the data collected so far by the state Department of Transportation are maddeningly equivocal.
The draft evaluation report released by the department last week concludes that the HOV lane, which extends from Salmon Creek to downtown Vancouver and is restricted to vehicles with two or more passengers for two hours each weekday morning, has met five of the eight goals set for it. Among them: Bus and carpool ridership has increased since the lane opened; travel times for mass-transit users have decreased; accidents have not increased.
The three as-yet unmet goals, however, form the principal rationale for a high-occupancy vehicle lane: to move more people faster along I-5 during the morning rush hours. The report says the HOV lane is not, as hoped, carrying more people per lane than either of the general-purpose lanes. Although travel times for HOV users have been reduced, travel times for all drivers have not.
The DOT report also showed increased public skepticism about the experiment. Last fall, before the HOV lane opened, the notion got positive response from 58 percent, negative from 42 percent. Today 47 percent give HOV thumbs up and 51 percent thumbs down, with 2 percent undecided.
The results are based on a survey of just 200 people, with a margin of error of plus or minus 7 percentage points. That could mean the swing in attitudes is actually greater. More likely, though, it's smaller: When asked whether the HOV lane should be made permanent, 49 percent said "yes" and 49 percent "no."
The report does offer some solid conclusions, however. Complaints by disgruntled solo drivers that the HOV lane has extended their commute by 20 minutes or more are baloney: The report finds that average travel times in the general-purpose lanes have increased just two minutes. And grousing about widespread use of the HOV lane by single-occupant vehicles appears unfounded: The violation rate is just 5 percent, well below the 15 percent goal.
Another half-year of usage could provide a better indication of whether the HOV experiment is a success. Unfortunately, the efforts of state Sen. Don Benton and others to kill the project, and the prospect that the lane will disappear if voters pass Referendum 51 this fall, have given motorists a strong disincentive to change their commuting habits. Which may mean the HOV lane never really stood a chance.