Virginia playing for keeps on HOV lanes

Chances are, lately when you’ve glanced over into the region’s highway high-occupancy vehicle lanes you’ve seen people driving to work alone.

Virginia officials have counted them and have seen enough.

A major crackdown on violators of HOV restrictions begins Wednesday with the slogan “No Excuses.”

Radio ads will run in 10-second spots. Highway message boards will alert drivers. The Virginia Department of Transportation is paying for Virginia State troopers’ overtime, who will be out in force, though officials are not releasing specific numbers.

“It will be highly visible. Everyone in the world is going to see people getting tickets,” said VDOT spokesman Ryan Hall. “There are so many violators it is punishing people who aren’t cheating.”

During the early morning hours, single-occupancy drivers make up as much as 35 percent of HOV traffic on Interstate 95 in Springfield and 38 percent on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway.

“The number of HOV violators is increasing and has reached such a magnitude that it’s affecting not just HOV users, but all commuters, ultimately slowing everyone down,” said VDOT Northern Virginia administrator Tom Farley.

HOV violations are the No. 1 complaint to transportation officials, Hall said.

On I-66, HOV lanes can be used by vehicles with two passengers during the morning and evening rush hour. On I-95, the lanes can be used by vehicles with three passengers. The I-95 HOV lanes, if changed to HOV-2, would be saturated with traffic and must be kept to HOV-3, according to VDOT’s last review.

Violators are charged $50 for the first violation, $100 for the second, $250 for the third within two years of the second offense, and $500 for the fourth within three years of the second offense.

HOV usage has doubled in the last four years, VDOT said.

On a typical morning on I-95, the HOV lanes carry more people than regular lanes. The four lanes carry 21,840 people in 18,800 vehicles while the two HOV lanes carry 22,400 people in 7,570 vehicles.

In practice, enforcement has become a little lax at times, so drivers are allowed to continue if they said they were getting off at the next exit, Hall said.

State police were clear that warnings are no more.

“Even if you enter the HOV lanes a couple of minutes before the restriction begins, you are a violator,” said Virginia State Police Capt. Tom Martin. “No excuses. If you were planning to exit at the next available exit, you are a violator. No excuses. If you are caught in the HOV lanes because you weren’t clear about the HOV rules, you are a violator.”

Hall said there is no way single drivers who get on 10 minutes before 6 a.m. can cover the distance to inner Northern Virginia or the District.

Prince William and Manassas drivers who abide by the rules are among the biggest benefactors of the enforcement. Most “sluglines” on I-95 originate in Prince William, most at the state’s largest commuter lot at Horner Road. OmniRide buses use the HOV lanes on I-95 and I-66.

The ride in HOV lanes from Woodbridge to Washington, D.C., typically takes 20 to 30 minutes, users say.

Hall said the increased enforcement will last as long as it takes to reduce violations.

A state task force created in May is due to report ways to improve HOV enforcement by Aug. 15, including higher penalties.

Prior to this year, the state budget did not fund new trooper training classes to the level to keep staffing at 100 percent statewide, but this year the state budget was amended to fund classes to get all trooper slots filled.

Low enforcement of traffic is the result of inadequate resources provided by the General Assembly, say moderates like Stafford Sen. John H. Chichester, R-28th District.

State troopers are paid less than their counterparts in local law enforcement departments, so taxpayers are essentially paying $70,000 to train officers who then get lured away by police or sheriff’s departments, leaving the state with a perpetual deficit of troopers, he said this past year.