In Our View: HOV: 'Heap of Violators'

Freeway frustrations continue on north-bound Interstate 5 in Portland

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In yet another case of Vancouver Envy, folks in Portland are becoming increasingly vexed about their HOV lane. Over here, we removed our HOV lane seven years ago, and hardly anyone seems to miss it. Poor Portlanders, though, still suffer the congestion and indignities of their 3.5-mile High Occupancy Vehicles lane on north-bound Interstate 5. Actually, "Portlanders" might not be the correct term. The HOV lane is in effect from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays, which means many of those harried travelers are home-bound commuters from Clark County.

As we pointed out while Vancouver's HOV lane was on its death bed back in 2005, few things aggravate a motorist more than pausing (often stopping) in a rush-hour jam while one-third of a freeway is closed to general traffic. And by now, many drivers are fed up with Portland's multipassenger lane. They're especially outraged by the large numbers of violators. The Oregonian recently reported the violation rate on the HOV lane from North Going Street to Jantzen Beach is running about 20 percent, double the rate of a decade ago and far above the national rate of 7 percent.

The Oregonian's Joseph Rose quoted Lt. Mike Fort of the Portland Police traffic division: "We regularly do missions, and we're going to be doing a lot more of them." Which means more people will pay a hefty $260 fine for breaking the law. One such violator was Vancouver resident Scarlett Zibritovsky, 20, who was caught driving in the HOV lane while accompanied by a giant but so-not-human teddy bear in the passenger seat. "I'm taking it with a smile," Zibritovsky said in a Columbian story.

Meanwhile, smiles are rare among law-abiding motorists who have little choice but to call the city's 503-823-SAFE line to report violators.

The big question now, as we see it, is whether Oregon Department of Transportation officials will remove the HOV lane before or after the Columbia River Crossing is built. Apparently, they're in no hurry. Rose also quoted ODOT traffic engineer Kate Freitag as saying the HOV lane "isn't going anywhere." She notes commuters save between eight and 13 minutes by using the special lane.

That might be, but as we reported seven years ago about Vancouver's HOV lane from 99th Street to the bridge, solo motorists were each being forced to drive 10 minutes more than before the HOV lane. Part of the explanation could have been increased traffic, but it's safe to assume the HOV lane was partly to blame as well.

We don't oppose all special lanes. In some places they work. But not here. The Oregonian reports there's been no increase in car pooling recently, although the HOV lane is supposed to incentivize multipassenger motoring. In the Seattle area, there are 310 miles of HOV lanes, but only 3.5 miles in Portland, leading Rose to correctly conclude: "Face it, this traffic amenity just isn't part of our commuting culture. It seems forced."

ODOT has had seven years to follow WSDOT's example. It's time to scrub out the HOV lane on I-5. The commute is tough enough as it is. Open up the whole freeway to everyone.