Air Date: Week of December 4, 1998
Years ago, special carpool lanes were touted as remedies for traffic gridlock and air pollution. But over time what the bureaucrats called high-occupancy-vehicle lanes have become unpopular and unsuccessful in a number of states. Some environmental activists say federal funding for them simply encourages wider highways. And for drivers who don't use them, the lanes are a highly visible source of frustration. Recently New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman closed thirty miles of carpool lanes on two of the state’s main highways. She persuaded the federal government to let New Jersey keep more than two hundred million dollars it had received with the promise of putting in the carpool lanes. David Kocieniewski (coach-in-EV-ski) covers New Jersey for the New York Times. He says sprawling development in North Jersey may have doomed the two carpool lanes from the start.
CURWOOD: Years ago special carpool lanes were touted as remedies for traffic gridlock and air pollution, but over time what the bureaucrats called "high occupancy vehicle lanes"have become unpopular and unsuccessful in a number of states. Recently, New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman closed 30 miles of carpool lanes on 2 of the state's main highways. She persuaded the Federal Government to let New Jersey keep more than $200 million it had received with a promise of putting in the carpool lanes. Many don't like the lanes. Some environmental activists say federal funding for them simply encourages wider highways. And for drivers who don't use them, the lanes are a highly visible source of frustration. A New Jersey study showed little usage of carpool lanes on the 2 interstates, although one on the New Jersey Turnpike was found to be effective. David Kocieniewski covers New Jersey for the New York Times. He says sprawling development in North Jersey may have doomed the 2 carpool lanes from the start.
KOCIENIEWSKI: To understand the problem you have to understand that New Jersey is a very diffuse state. It's a suburbanized state. It's also a state that loves its cars. And there aren't the kind of hubs that make it easy or convenient to carpool. If you're going from one suburb to one downtown, it can make sense to do that. But in New Jersey there are small businesses scattered throughout the state. There are people who commute at different hours to different places. So, what you had was during rush hours there would be, you know, 40,000 rush hour commuters sitting jammed in traffic and looking at this empty lane with only a few cars per hour going on it, and they got angry, and they got on their car phones and they called talk radio and called politicians. And ultimately they got what they wanted.
CURWOOD: The Federal law that hands out this money asks states to come up with trip reduction plans to encourage carpooling. How did New Jersey respond to that part of the law?
KOCIENIEWSKI: There was some effort, but I think that is where critics of the New Jersey plan, you know, make some interesting points. They say that New Jersey did a few low-level organizing campaigns. They funded a few not-for-profit groups, which encouraged transportation alternatives. But a lot of environmentalists and a lot of people who were critical of the governor's move say that New Jersey was too quick to throw up its hands and say we'll undo it, rather than to try to change commuters' habits.
CURWOOD: So, then, the state of New Jersey didn't really encourage people to carpool that much.
KOCIENIEWSKI: There are a lot of critics who believe that, and believe that, you know, the state was easier and more politically palatable to just say to the angry motorists, we'll give you what you want, than it was to try to encourage a more kind of esoteric goal like fuel economy and pollution reduction.
CURWOOD: So how do the drivers feel about this now? What's the commute like there?
KOCIENIEWSKI: I think the drivers feel liberated. It's kind of (laughs) -- it's kind of like, you know, one of the columnists compared it to the first day after Prohibition, where people just feel like there was this unfair government regulation being imposed upon them, and finally common sense has prevailed. So there's a great deal of relief. Although there's also an understanding by most people that this is probably not going to last long. You know, the more you build highways, the more development tends to pop up around it, and so even the people who were against the HOV lane acknowledge that within 6 or 7 years the relief that they're now feeling will probably be mitigated by development and you'll just have all the lanes jammed the way that the non-HOV lanes are jammed now.
CURWOOD: Is there something wrong with the concept of a high occupancy vehicle, this HOV, lane? Is it an idea that doesn't really work, or it does really work and it's not being properly applied by the states who've tried it?
KOCIENIEWSKI: I think it depends where. I think that a lot of commuters feel that it is unrealistic to expect them to change their habits, you know, the American family is so diffuse and people have to stop to pick up children on the way home from work. They have to stop to do grocery shopping. There is such a crunch for time that a lot of people feel it is too much for government to ask. And Americans love their cars and love the freedom and mobility that their cars offer them.
CURWOOD: Have carpool lanes been successful elsewhere?
KOCIENIEWSKI: I think in California they've been received fairly well in a lot of parts of California, although there have been other states where people have rebelled against carpool lanes. In Houston, for example, there was a carpool lane that they decommissioned. Houston has to repay the Federal Government the money, however, so they've started it as a pay as you go lane, where if you want to drive in that lane you have to buy a permit for, I think it's $50 a month. I think they have been successful and embraced in some places, but it depends upon the community and what the New Jersey experience is, is that the way the communities are set up here, the way working hours are scheduled, the way people live vis a vis their workplace, it did not make sense.
CURWOOD: Now, New Jersey took some money here. Is it going to have to pay back the Federal Government?
KOCIENIEWSKI: So far no, and that to me is the most interesting part about this and probably has the most far-ranging implications. New Jersey got $240 million and through some lobbying with the state's two US Senators, they managed to write a provision in the last budget which allowed New Jersey to not repay the money for decommissioning HOV on these 2 roads. In the places where carpools are working and there is not a great deal of opposition, they'll probably stay where they are. But there are probably between half a dozen and a dozen other localities where there is a great deal of discontent. And now that New Jersey set the precedent, I think it will be harder for the DOT to say you must repay.
CURWOOD: David Kocieniewski spoke with us from the Trenton desk of the New York Times. Thanks for joining us, David.
KOCIENIEWSKI: Thank you.
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