By Susanna Ray
OLYMPIA — Ever seen someone cheating in the HOV lane on the freeway and wondered what would happen if you turned them in?
Chances are that if you called 206-764-HERO in the past couple of years, nothing much happened at all.
Funding cuts in 2000 left the program with a staff of just one, instead of two. But it might get back up to speed in the near future. At Wednesday’s meeting of the state Transportation Commission, Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said he plans to address the funding issue in his spending plan, due out next month.
The money is necessary, warned the commission’s vice chairman, George Kargianis, or "we’re going to create a state of scofflaws."
A call to report a lane violator is answered by an automated system asking you to fill out a "voice form" with the person’s license plate number, the type of car and the time and place you saw them.
One man is responsible for entering all the transgressors’ information into a database, matching it up with Department of Licensing records for names and addresses, and then sending out warnings.
First-time offenders get brochures explaining that HOV lanes are only for cars with two or more people in them, letting them know they just escaped an $86 fine because they weren’t caught by police, and warning them they’d better not do it again. The second time someone is reported, they get a letter from the Department of Transportation, and the third time they get a letter from the State Patrol.
The problem is, that’s a lot of work for that one man.
In 1999, two people took down information about 41,000 violators and sent out 26,400 warnings, which was a response rate of 64 percent, said Melanie Moores, the Department of Transportation’s spokeswoman for the HOV system.
Then voters passed Initiative 695 that fall and the motor vehicle excise tax was eliminated. As a result, the HERO program’s $150,000 annual budget was cut in half.
So in 2000, with only one person to do all the work, the response rate dropped to about 20 percent. There were 44,000 calls and only 8,500 brochures sent out, Moores said.
But as program managers figured out how to cope with the decreased income and manpower, the rate is gradually going up, she said. Last year, it was 24 percent, and now it’s up to 43 percent. There have been 5,600 calls about offenders and 2,400 warnings sent out so far this year.
The program works, she said, even if they can’t get to everybody.
Not only does it reduce the rate of repeat offenders — less than 6 percent of those reported the first time are ever reported again — but "it’s a good road rage tool," Moores said.
The State Patrol also uses the information to figure out where most of the cheating occurs so they can set up stings at the right places.
You can call Herald Writer Susanna Ray at 1-360-586-3803 or send e-mail to email@example.com.