Heads up to commuters on the Central Expressway HOV lanes: Cheating can cost you.
DART officers were out in force Monday and wrote 75 tickets to solo drivers who sneaked their way into lanes designed only for car poolers, buses and motorcyclists. The move comes after months of complaints by rule-abiding commuters that the scofflaws weren't being punished.
One motorist, a self-described "consistent, shameless violator," said Monday was the first time he could remember police officers writing tickets for cheating in the HOV lanes on Central. He got snagged along with the rest.
"So, I thought, 'If you can't beat them, join them,' " said John Scully, 35, a McKinney software developer who commutes daily to Dallas. "I know I'm violating the law, but I've thought of a million reasons to justify it to myself, such as: 'I'm saving money on gas,' or 'It's better for the environment.' "
DART has made similar enforcement blitzes before on Central, but none has involved as many officers at once, and none has produced 75 tickets, Police Chief James Spiller said. Monday morning's two-hour rush involved at least six officers, in both cars and on motorcycles, said spokesman Morgan Lyons, and probably cost about $1,000 in overtime.
Monday's ticketing effort came on the same day that Texas Department of Transportation officials released a report on the HOV lanes in North Texas, which the agency built and its partner, DART, maintains and enforces.
The 27-page report details the history of the lanes, and touts their success in helping car poolers and motorcyclists shave big chunks off their daily commutes. Even drivers in the main lanes have seen some time savings, officials have said.
But the report acknowledges that enforcement on the HOV lanes on Central is tough. To solve it, it says DART will seek funding through the state to stage more "saturation" operations like the one Monday morning.
Lyons said the plan would be to get grant money to cover overtime for the extra officers involved, though he said no decision yet had been made about how much to seek or when to submit a proposal.
But Spiller said that for now, most drivers who refuse to be good citizens are likely to get away with it.
Enforcing the HOV rules on Central, and on parts of eastern LBJ Freeway, is both expensive and potentially unsafe, he said. The lanes are too narrow to consistently enforce, and it's too easy for drivers to weave in and out of the lanes.
"We're going to continue doing the best we can," Spiller said. "But unfortunately, the design of the lanes themselves does present challenges to enforcement. As a result, we are going to do what we can, when we can. The problems for us are on the [U.S.] 75 lanes, northbound and southbound, and on [Interstate] 635 going east from 75."
The growing network of HOV lanes on the region's other highways is designed with built-in enforcement pockets, he said, and those lanes are much easier for officers to patrol.
On Central, however, the HOV lanes were squeezed into what used to be the shoulder. That hasn't left room for the concrete barriers that some of the other lanes use. Instead, the lanes are separated only by white pylons, and drivers frequently drive over those as they weave in and out of lanes.
Spiller said police officers on Central must work together to spot drivers and then safely pursue them - often in the face of traffic jams. That means safe enforcement takes extra manpower, something he said isn't always available.
"It all depends on the number of people you can commit," Spiller said. "And HOV lanes are a small part of what we are doing, compared to our work with the trains and buses and the stations. We have to prioritize."
DART has just over 200 sworn officers in all, including the command staff.
"I wouldn't say it is doomed to fail," Spiller said of Monday's enforcement effort. "I like to think it is not a failure, given our presence there. But what is quite often left out of the discussion of these lanes is the role of the public. It's easy to just hop over the dividing lane and get in the HOV lane. But that's not the right thing to do. It's going to take more people being aware of the rules and deciding to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the way it is designed makes it a safety hazard for police officers trying to enforce the law."
On Monday, as Scully headed south on the HOV lanes in Richardson, he confronted a swarm of patrolmen pulling over traffic.
Scully said he and two other motorists in front of him swerved over the plastic pylons into the main lanes after seeing the police, but an officer on foot flagged the three motorists down.
All three were driving solo and given citations, Scully said.
Meanwhile, he said, legal HOV motorists cheered as they passed the police trap.
Neither the fine, nor the exhortations from fellow motorists, are likely to keep him legal, however.
"I know it's bad, but I'd pay $200 a month just to cheat," he said. "If I'm caught once a month, it's worth it to me to save the extra time."