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Planned High-Occupancy Vehicle Lanes are Criticized by Environmentalists

More than a decade after angry motorists forced the state to scrap experimental commuter carpool lanes on the Garden State Parkway, state officials plan to open 45 miles of similar lanes on Route 80, Route 287 and the New Jersey Turnpike.

The Route 80 lanes are scheduled to open next April, the Turnpike lanes at the end of 1995 and the Route 287 lanes between 1996 and 1998.

While state officials have gone to great lengths to avoid the reaction from solo drivers that killed the carpool lanes on the Parkway, they have run into stiff criticism from some of the people they had hoped would be on their side: Environmentalists.

"I find some of their positions really astounding," said Christine Johnson, assistant state transportation commissioner, who said the planned pooling lanes are part of an effort to meet federal Clean Air Act requirements.

Johnson said those interested in cleaner air and less motor vehicle exhaust pollution should be supporting the pooling lanes, also known as HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes, because they will give commuters an incentive to get into buses, vanpools and carpools rather than continuing to drive to work alone.

But James T. B. Tripp, counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said he and other environmentalists find the state's logic "crazy and perverse" because all of the planned HOV lanes involve widening the highways.

"No matter how you look at it, it's a capacity increase that will inevitably bring more traffic, more congestion and more air pollution, not less.

"If they were converting existing highway lanes into HOV lanes, that would be something we could support. But they're not. They're laying more concrete and there is very little evidence that this will result in fewer cars on the road.

"In fact, the experience of the last 30 or 40 years is that it just creates more traffic by continuing to promote suburban sprawl development," said Tripp.

Edward Lloyd, director of the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic, which represents several New Jersey environmental groups, including the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, the New Jersey Audubon Society and the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, said just getting some solo drivers to double up or even triple up will do little or nothing to ease the region's air pollution and traffic congestion problems.

"Calling a car with two people in it a 'high occupancy vehicle' is a misnomer. We think a high occupancy vehicle is a bus with 50 people or a rail car with 75 or 100 people in it," he said.

Daniel Convissor, a South Orange native and board member of Transportation Alternatives, a transit and bicycle advocacy group with more than 2,000 members in New Jersey and New York, said: "We view these HOV lanes as just excuses they're using to widen highways now that the Clean Air Act makes that difficult to justify when we're not meeting federal standards. But they don't help clean up the air and people shouldn't buy the idea that they do."

Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build new highway lanes, HOV or otherwise, Convissor said the state should be spending money on more cost-effective measures to reduce the state's heavy dependence on the automobile, such as expanding bus and rail service in the suburbs.

"Think of how much more bus or train service you could provide for $100 million instead of throwing it away on more concrete," he said.

But Johnson, who started her career promoting car pools in the 1970s, said HOV lanes are an important incentive to encourage suburban commuter to at least double up for their drive to work.

"You can't just go out in the suburbs an lay down a light rail line and expect people to ride it, because the commuting patterns are to diverse for traditional mass transit. Most people are commuting suburb to suburb, not suburb to central city," she said.

She said critics also do not appreciate the political obstacles involved in "taking away" existing highway lanes from drivers and turning them over to carpoolers and bus riders.

If the roadway isn't congested she said, there is no travel time advantage for lane users, thus little incentive to pool. If it is congested, turning one lane over to higher occupancy vehicles will, at least in the short run, cause increased delays for those who can't use the lane, she said.

Referring to the failure of the Parkway lanes, Johnson said, "We've also got a legacy to overcome in this state so we're trying to do what we hope will be accepted."

Robert J. Grimm, the Turnpike project engineer overseeing the toll road's HOV planning effort, said studies show an HOV lane between Interchanges 8A and 16E would have four times the modest air quality benefits of the lane between interchanges 11 and 14 that was tentatively proposed by the Turnpike Authority last month.

But he said Turnpike officials chose for the shorter lane partly because "if you look at the numbers, none of the proposals will really do that much for air quality," but mainly because the stretch chose coincides with the $400 million widening project now underway and so will not require turning over any existing lanes to HOV's.

Grimm said he and other Turnpike officials were impressed by a consultant's report that said no significant HOV lane in the United States that took away an existing lane has ever gained the political support needed to survive.

"To me that's a very telling statement," he said, adding that an opinion survey of drivers on the Turnpike done 1 1/2 years ago found almost half saying they would not favor HOV lanes and most favoring other alternatives to ease congestion problems, such as increasing mass transit service, speeding up existing rail and bus service, installing electronic tolls and adding more toll lanes.

With the new Turnpike lanes scheduled to open at the end of 1995, Grimm said: "That tells me we're going to have to do a lot of public education over the next couple years and that this is probably the last chance for the New Jersey Turnpike to have an HOV lane that works.

"If it doesn't work, it will be at least 10 years before we'll be allowed to mention those three letters again," he said. But if it does, he said, "we are not precluded from extending it in the future."

Johnson said she is "puzzled" that environmental groups are taking positions against the proposed HOV lanes "because I think we share a common objective of increasing the use of high-occupancy vehicles and reducing dependency on single-occupancy vehicles."

Johnson said that under the Clean Air Act, employers in New Jersey with more than 100 employees will be required to reduce solo commuting by their employees by an average of 25 percent beginning in 1996.

"We can't ask employers in New Jersey do that without us doing something to help encourage their people to get into vanpools and carpools by offering them a travel time advantage where we can," she said.

"For a lot of people today, saving time is probably an even stronger incentive than saving money," she said.

She said the new "Diamond Express Lanes," as the lanes on Route 80 and 287 are being dubbed by state officials, will by reserved during weekday rush hours for vehicles with at least two occupants, including buses.

The lanes in Morris and Somerset counties should save poolers and bus riders 10 to 15 minutes of commuting time each way by allowing them to bypass congestion in the general traffic lanes, she said.

On the Turnpike, which is generally less congested during rush hours, Turnpike officials estimate a more modest time-saving of just under two minutes for users of their proposed HOV lane between Exits 11 and 14.

Judith P. Schleicher, president of Morris County Rides, a county and corporate-sponsored non-profit group which promotes ridesharing, said the HOV lanes, while not a cure-all, will reinforce other efforts to wean suburban commuters away from total dependence on their cars.

"You need incentive like this to get people to change their behavior. People are so dependent on their cars and so skeptical that anything else will be reliable that any change is very hard.

"But I think that if HOV lanes can be successful, they will be a precursor to better public transit in New Jersey. It's part of a transition we have to make," she said.

Scheicher, who served on the study committees that recommended adding HOV lanes to Route 80 and Route 287, said the two-occupant minimum for using the lanes was chosen because studies showed that anything higher would result in too few people being able to use the lane, at least at first.

She said the committee wanted to avoid the pitfalls that led to quick abandonment of the Parkway lanes in 1982, one of which was that too few motorists used the lane. That caused solo drivers who were stuck in congestion next to the empty HOV lane to demand that it be opened up to all traffic.

"In the future, you can always raise the minimum occupancy to use the lane if it fills up with two-person carpools. That would be a real sign of success," she said.

The HOV lanes being planned for the Turnpike are expected to have a minimum vehicle occupancy requirement of three people, according to Grimm.

He said the higher minimum was chosen because studies show that letting two- person carpools in the lane would lead to overcrowding. At the same time, he said the studies indicate there will be enough vehicles with three or more people to keep the lane reasonably full.

Lloyd said the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic, has filed a Freedom of Information request with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) seeking documentation of the estimated air quality impacts of planned HOV lanes to be added to the 22-mile stretch of Route 287 between Route 78 and Route 80. "So far, we haven't received anything," he said.

Therese Langer, a staff scientist with the law clinic, said studies of HOV lanes elsewhere "indicate that you need to have at least four or more occupants in vehicles using a new HOV lane to make adding the lane result in a net air quality benefit."

The possible ineffectiveness of HOV lanes in reducing air pollution is also a reason for opposition from motorist advocacy groups.

Steve Carrellas, New Jersey coordinator for the National Motorists Association, called the lanes "a politically expedient solution that won't have much of an effect" except "to discriminate against people who have no choice but to use a single occupant vehicle."

Carrellas said direct financial incentives to carpoolers and vanpoolers would be more effective in promoting ridesharing and that traffic congestion would be better addressed by expediting traffic flows by such means as raising the 55 mph speed limit, enforcing laws that require drivers to keep right except when passing and clearing accidents and breakdowns more quickly.



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Author: Guy Baehr
Title: Planned High-Occupancy Vehicle Lanes are Criticized by Environmentalists
Publication: The Newark Star-Ledger
Date: 19 September 1993


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