20 Years in the Fast Lane

Long Island Business News
July 25, 2014
20 Years in the Fast Lane
By: Claude Solnik July 25, 2014

Happy birthday to the Long Island Expressway’s High Occupancy Vehicle lane, which turns 20 this year.

 It’s actually the 20th anniversary of the completion of the first portion of the multi-passenger lane (stretching from Exit 49 to Exit 57); other portions opened in 1998 (Exit 40 to Exit 49), 1999 (Exit 57 to Exit 64) and 2005 (Exit 32 to Exit 40), completing a massive infrastructure project that started in the 1970s and surpassed $880 million in construction costs through its three decades.

The idea of an LIE carpool lane dates back to the 1970s, when Nassau was already brimming with residents, Suffolk was filling up nicely and lawmakers were already concerned with fuel consumption and air pollution. A 1978 New York State Department of Transportation survey indicated three-quarters of motorists wouldn’t use a “carpool-only” lane, however, so the idea was laid to rest – until the state devised plans for a lane reserved exclusively for carpools and buses during peak travel hours only.

Twenty-six years later, the LIE still turns into the world’s longest parking lot sometimes, but the HOV lane is credited with helping to turn a traffic-laden thoroughfare into a smoother, speedier route that rewards carpoolers, bus passengers and other environmentally minded motorists.

More than one-third of all LIE vehicles now travel in the HOV lane, according to the state Department of Transportation, which once considered the lane so successful that it contemplated raising the passenger requirement from two to three. That didn’t happen, but there have been other cases that also challenged the state’s ability to create HOV lanes – or at least set New York’s carpool queues apart from those in other states.

The state, for instance, once considered adding another 1.1 miles of HOV lane from the Queens-Nassau border to Exit 31, at the Cross Island Parkway. But in 1998, citing opposition from Queens residents, Gov. George Pataki road-blocked those expansion plans.

Another challenge: Suggesting operational hazards, opponents once decried designs that allowed motorists to enter and exit the HOV lanes only at specific junctions, instead of switching lanes at will as drivers do in California and Florida carpool lanes. However, New York legislators decided in 2008 – just three years after the LIE’s stretch of HOV lanes was finally completed – to continue restricting entries and exits.

With or without that extra HOV stretch and wherever they can or can’t enter the carpool lane, there’s still no doubt that motorists – in groups of two or more – flock to the HOV lane to avoid the LIE’s rush-hour standstills.

“I think that’s certainly a motivation, especially for our employees who live out east,” said Lisa Burch, the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System’s director of sustainability and social responsibility.

North Shore-LIJ has helped more than 600 employees enroll in a special carpool program prompted in large part by the HOV lane – one of many such ride-sharing programs arranged by Long Island employers and networking groups with an eye on the multi-passenger option.

While the traffic-reduction benefits are huge, much of the government’s HOV encouragement focuses on environmental concerns – such as 2006 state legislation allowing hybrid vehicles to use the HOV lane, regardless of how many passengers are inside. Today, all vehicles with Clean Passenger Vehicles stickers, including electric cars, are permitted HOV usage, and employers are looking to capitalize by making it easier for employees to qualify.

North Shore-LIJ, for instance, is planning to open an electric-vehicle fueling station at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset this summer, and “we’re working on installing them at the rest of our hospitals,” Burch noted.

All told, as of last October (the latest numbers available), the state had issued roughly 3,700 Clean Passenger Vehicle stickers for cars registered to Nassau drivers and another 11,600 for cars registered to Suffolk drivers.

Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, called HOV access “the icing on the cake” in reference to his 50-mile-per-gallon 2007 Toyota Prius, which he drives when he can’t get where he’s going on his bicycle.

“I love it,” Raacke said. “When I bought the car, I said to my wife that just the amount of time I save going to meetings, that’s worth buying the new car, apart from the fuel savings. It’s a real time-saver.”

 

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