December 29, 2006
By STEVE GRANT, Courant Staff Writer
It would seem intuitive: If gasoline prices become painful enough, people will find ways to cope, such as car-pooling or using mass transit. Now there are statistics to buttress that assumption in at least one respect.
They come in a state Department of Transportation report completed only last month and based upon monitoring of the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on interstates 91, 84 and 384. Those 38 miles of HOV lanes are restricted to vehicles carrying two or more people, and the DOT surveys their usage every year in mid-September.
In 2005, with gas prices at $3.16 a gallon, daily use of the HOV lanes hit an all-time high, about 10,180 people during the morning rush hours.
For anyone who thought those high gasoline prices might lead people to change their commuting habits for the long term, however, the new numbers are disappointing. This September, a year later, with gas prices at $2.77 a gallon, daily usage plummeted to 2004 levels, 8,523 people during the morning rush. On I-91 southbound, 1,324 vehicles carried 3,854 people during the commute to work, representing decreases of 28 percent and 16 percent from the previous year.
"HOV usage does follow pretty closely with the gasoline per-gallon pricing," said Jim Andrini, a transportation supervising planner at the agency.
The survey also helps pin down how many one-occupant vehicles are in HOV lanes illegally - "a significant amount," it found.
Consider the morning of Sept. 14, for example. That day, between 7:45 a.m. and 8 a.m., 38 of 174 vehicles using the lane on I-84 westbound were single-occupant vehicles. On I-384 westbound, 42 of 92 vehicles using the HOV lane during that period were illegal.
"It's an enforcement issue," Andrini said. "And we can't get all of them."
One seeming anomaly shows up in the statistics. I-91 HOV usage is highest during weekday rush hours, as would be expected. But the heaviest use of the I-84 HOV lanes comes on weekends. Average weekend traffic on I-84 westbound is 10 percent higher than weekdays, and on I-84 eastbound it is 25 percent higher.
Andrini said it has become clear that vacationers and long-distance business travelers, many of them from out-of-state, take advantage of HOV lanes on weekends, beginning with Friday evening eastbound traffic.
Even if HOV lanes emerged as a way to ease rush-hour congestion by encouraging car-pooling and mass transit, "it isn't all about commuting," Andrini said. "If we can draw in vacationers on weekends - great. It's tremendous."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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