These Political Leaders Trying to Fix Traffic Have a Plan

The transit debate in Middle Tennessee is hot because very expensive solutions are just about the only proposals being discussed. Faced with the choice of higher taxes, tolls, or waiting for self driving cars – finding the right recipe for success is a trick.

In searching for an alternative approach we can’t help but look at the benefits of enforcing existing HOV laws in Tennessee.

HOV Lanes are out of control. The question is asked: who is doing something about it?
Police have said it is not a priority, but priorities for police and enforcement are set by policy. No part of the Mayor’s transit plan directly presents penalties or addresses incentives to bring fewer cars downtown. But cars are the villian, right?

A common misconception is that only the Tennessee Highway Patrol polices highway traffic. Actually, mayors of cities and counties can also police highway traffic in their jurisdiction. Instead, all the talk recently has focused instead expanding bus transit and building a new light rail system.

Voters decide on May 1st on the investment they are willing to make. The assumption is surrounding counties will follow their lead.

Change leadership can from the state legislature. Doing something that will demonstrably help traffic congestion and commute times can hardly be controversial. That goal can be met by finding a way to increase compliance with existing laws and existing resources, but both are broken. HOV lanes exist, but they’re clogged with violators, according to TDOT, up to 94 percent of the time.

So what is being done? In the Tennessee State House of Representatives and in the state Senate, several legislators are working on passing a bill that would do something to increase enforcement– with just a few simple changes HOV laws.

A RideShare Commuter Incentive Act was presented in both chambers last year. It updates olds laws and brings Tennessee closer to the rest of the country in how it deals with HOV lanes. It provides what legislators feel are effective ways to fix Tennessee’s HOV system,  which has one of the worst compliance rates .

Not surprisingly, Tennessee also has the lowest federally allowed fines for violating the HOV lane, which is $50.

The bill would simply fix that. It would increase fines for violations. In California the same violation cost $490, in Connecticut it is $401. Even in neighboring Georgia the base fine is $101. Many states like Colorado and Virginia have escalating fines for repeat offenders. Almost all states consider it a moving violation and charge a point or more against your drivers’ license. Tennessee does neither.

The current version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Michael Curcio in the House and Senator Jack Johnson in the Senate, raises that fine to $100 for first time offenders.

For repeat offenders a second ticket is $200 and any ticket after that its $300.

There was a much stronger version requiring increased enforcement that was defeated in the House Transportation Committee. The ‘watered down’ version, as described above, is now being put forth, most likely, in the House and then will be voted on in the Senate.

The bill also takes a proactive stance on education, making sure drivers are aware of the fines and changing attitudes towards enforcement.

The bill has been fully endorsed by the local business community, including the Chamber of Commerce, known as Williamson, Inc. and the the Williamson Business PAC. Mayors, including Corey Napier consider this a problem for their constituents who drive the greatest distances but are denied the benefits of HOV lanes when they go to the trouble to carpool.

The current version of the bill passed in the Senate Transportation Committee last session, but was not brought to a full vote in the Senate before adjournment. In the house, the earlier version with stricter penalties and more enforcement failed to make it out of the House Transportation Committee. But the new version, amended to reconcile with the Senate language, can be brought back for vote before the committee.

The amended bill needs to be introduced by its original sponsor, Rep. Curcio.

He along with co-sponsor Rep. Sam Whitson hope to get the bill out of committee and into law as soon as possible.

Rep. Barry Doss, the chair of the Transportation Committee, is the one who holds keys. He can bring the amended version of the bill up for a vote before the House transportation committee, which if it passes there can then go up for a full vote before the entire house.

“This is important is because it is about getting our transportation house in order,” Curcio said. “It is just as important for Nashville as it is for rural and satellite communities, and I see it as a rural development issue. If you live in Dickson or Spring Hill and you can get into the core in an efficient commute time and even better if there is a bus [that can move in the HOV lane] then more people will want to move to those communities and they will thrive.”

And then, of course, there will be fewer cars in downtown Nashville.

“If we are going to have HOV lanes we need enforcement,” co-sponsor Whitson said. “I think HOV enforcement, if it would encourage carpooling and less cars on the road and make commutes easier, it makes sense. Especially if it is a low cost [mass transit] option to the taxpayers. Anything like that I would be on board with.”

The bill filing deadline will be the beginning of February, and Curcio said he hopes to get things moving before then so it can pass this session.

“It just depends on what the will of the committee is. I have been in conversations with committee members to help them understand what the bill does and doesn’t not do,” Curcio said. “It does not force people to carpool.”

“The average Tennessean is not as familiar with the concepts and value of HOV, and I don’t see it as a partisan or even rural versus urban issue. It is just a common sense solution to help traffic,” he added.

In the Senate, Jack Johnson said he would support a full vote on the bill, once the House passes its amended version.

“I think it is important for the readers to know that quite frankly I am not a big fan of HOV lanes,” he said. “I get a lot of calls and complaints about their mere existence.”

“But the federal government unfortunately has us over a barrel here relative to [the State’s obligation],” said Johnson, referring to the $50 million deal the state made with the Federal Highway Administration. Those funds were conditioned on HOV lane construction.

“But the point is we have them,” continued Senator Johnson, “and we get complaints from people who use them properly about people driving in them when they shouldn’t. We are trying to go to more voluntary compliance. At the end of day most of my constituents would say if you have to have them then it is not fair to people who obey the law to see people violating it.”

TDOT reports that the number one topic and volume of complaints registered with the agency is about HOV lanes not being properly used.

Related Stories:

Why HOV Lanes Should Be Used, But Are Not

Tennessee HOV Enforcement Lowest in Country

What the Future of Williamson County Traffic Looks Like

Reducing Congestion in Nashville