Data energize car-pool-lane pilot
Friday, January 31, 2003
By Bill Stewart
VANCOUVER -- Bad news for drive-alone commuters: It looks like Vancouver's 4-mile stretch of Interstate 5's car-pool lane experiment will be around for two more years.
The lane, restricted to multiple-passenger vehicles from 6 to 8 a.m. weekdays, at one time was close to elimination because too few people used it. For months it was stuck at 70 percent of the other lanes combined.
But in the July-October monitoring, use started to rise. Last October, the single lane carried 90 percent as many people as the other two lanes combined. The lane has been open since October 2001.
Don Wagner, regional administrator for the state Department of Transportation, has the authority to extend the lane's life. He said he is leaning toward the upper end of an 18- to 24-month test period, as recommended by the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council.
Wagner called the test an uphill experience, but that, "It means 600 fewer vehicles in a two-hour period."
The southbound I-5 lane starts at about 99th Street, and ends at about the Mill Plain Boulevard overpass. It is limited to motorcycles, buses and small vehicles under 10,000 pounds carrying a driver and passenger. Bigger trucks are banned even if carrying extra passengers.
"People are so committed to not getting out of their cars that we faced built-in bias," Wagner said. One of eight test targets -- the lanes have met six -- "was public acceptance. I think that was probably a bad goal."
The other missed goal was to carry more people in the car-pool lane than the other two, unrestricted lanes.
"People expect to drive where they want to drive, and forget rules," he said. "I received hundreds of letters, and I read every one. I also read the favorable messages. There weren't many, I admit."
In the letters and e-mails forwarded to the department and obtained by The Oregonian via public records request, many motorists complained of sparse use of the lane, high numbers of cheaters and worsened congestion approaching the Interstate Bridge.
Some complained that circumstances skew use statistics; still others complained of "social engineering."
William Vojak wrote, "I just wonder who the idiot was" who created a car-pool lane. He called it underused in Portland and said the estimated use of the Vancouver lane is "a lie or incompetence." He said the money should have been spent on additional park-and-ride lots.
In contrast, Ron Beebe wrote, "We urban commuters are generally a pretty illogical and selfish group. We'd rather sit in traffic and complain about it rather than pay a few extra pennies per gallon of gas to help ourselves out of the congestion mess."
Beebe noted that Portland's I-5 car-pool lane started empty but now is almost at capacity. He suggested car-pool lanes be placed on all three-lane freeways in the metro area.
In Portland, the northbound afternoon car-pool lane carries more than the other two lanes combined and includes three additional C-Tran commuter routes heading east of Interstate 205, to Evergreen Transit Center, Fishers Landing and Camas.
State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, is a longtime critic of the car-pool lane. He called any extension of its use "outrageous, absolutely unconscionable."
Benton, vice chairman of the Senate's Highways and Transportation Committee, said the restricted lane was promised as a pilot program, but that motorists are "being punished when the lane did not meet the state's criteria." He said the extension is an act of arrogance.
Wagner's theory is that the car-pool lane is too short. Even if it operates perfectly, the time savings is minor compared to the Seattle area, where restricted lanes enable motorists to pass many miles of stalled vehicles. But there is no justification and no money to extend Vancouver's test section northward.
Wagner said that a September survey showed that 53 percent of those quizzed thought the car-pool lane "is a good idea. And we know from their other answers that something like 30 percent of the group had used the car-pool lane. So even some of the people caught in traffic think it's helping."
He explained the October jump in car-pool lane use as "pent-up demand for park-and-ride space. . . .
"The park-and-ride at 134th Street has been full for ages," Wagner said. "C-Tran opened some new commuter spaces after signing agreements with businesses around 134th for the use of their parking lots. That put more people on the buses."
C-Tran signed an agreement this month for the design and construction of a new lot at Northeast 99th Street and I-5.
Engineers once talked about a northbound car-pool lane from the Interstate Bridge, but Wagner would veto that. "I think the bridge is the choke point," he said. "Watch traffic just north of the bridge, and the tight lines seem to evaporate in seconds."
Bill Stewart: 360-896-5722; 503-294-5900; firstname.lastname@example.org