Riding alone in HOV lanes is a Parkway North habit

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The man in the gray Pontiac who drove in the Parkway North HOV lanes without a passenger one day last week was hardly alone in thumbing his nose at the two-occupant rule.

Over a one-hour stretch from 4 to 5 p.m., 56 drivers were observed entering the HOV lanes at the Bedford Avenue gate near Mellon Arena without riders, an offense that could get each a $109.50 fine.

But probably not.

A review of records in the office of North Side District Judge Robert P. Ravenstahl Jr. turned up only three citations for HOV lane violations this year and six last year. The other North Side district judge, Derwin Rushing, has had one case this year, a staffer said.

That tends to aggravate drivers who obey the rules, like Larysa Gradeck of West View. She and her sister, Sonia Wallace of Ohio Township, commute via the Parkway North regularly. Ms. Gradeck says she typically sees three or four violators on each trip.

"It seems to be on the increase lately," she said.

State police spokeswoman Trooper Robin Mungo said citing HOV lane violators is not a top priority because troopers have so many other duties during rush hour.

"Those HOV lanes are open during peak rush hour time periods [when] all the main arteries are jam-packed and we are constantly running from incident to incident, for everything from fender benders to major crashes that clog up traffic.

"We can't afford to sit in a stationary position at the beginning or end of the HOV lanes."

Trooper Mungo said she understood the frustrations of those who abide by the HOV restrictions and see others ignoring them.

"We would hope that people obey the law" because it is the right thing to do, she said.

Court records in Judge Ravenstahl's office showed two citations were issued to singleton drivers on April 14 and one on March 5.

Last year on May 27, a trooper cited three motorists within a 24-minute period of the morning rush. There were only three citations for the rest of the year.

The HOV lanes opened in 1989 with a three-rider requirement, which was reduced to two in 1992 after complaints that virtually no vehicles were using the lanes.

That boosted HOV traffic, but Dan Cessna, the current district executive for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said the lanes remain underutilized.

"It could certainly handle more traffic. Its [value] is measured on the days it's not available" and major backups occur on the main line, he said.

In some metro areas, drivers without passengers can legally use high-occupancy lanes by paying a toll. On those HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes, the prices are adjusted upward when traffic builds to keep the lanes from getting too crowded.

While so-called "congestion pricing" has been effective elsewhere, there has been no consideration of such a model here, Mr. Cessna said.

The Parkway North is the only highway in the region that would be readily converted for variable tolling, but Mr. Cessna said "the reality is it wouldn't generate enough funds to pay for itself."

Parkway North HOV use peaked in 1992, when an average of 4,857 vehicles per day used it. But HOV traffic declined by 20 percent over the ensuing 12 years, falling to 3,861 vehicles per day by 2004. It has remained near that level since then.

In 2009, for every vehicle that breezed down the 5.3-mile HOV lanes, 25 used the mainline.

Eight Port Authority bus routes use the HOV lanes, carrying about 3,000 riders on a typical weekday.

One option that PennDOT has considered is converting the Parkway North to a more traditional HOV configuration, with the innermost lanes in both directions reserved for car pools, Mr. Cessna said. That would eliminate the need to have reversible lanes and gates.

But such a conversion would be "very expensive," he acknowledged.

Drivers without passengers can legally use the HOV lanes to travel outbound after 7 p.m. daily and on weekends, which helps ease congestion after events at Mellon Arena and the North Shore stadiums. Motorcycles are permitted to use the lanes whenever they are open.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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