Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Coming to terms with ‘Lexus’ express lanes on the Virginia side of the Beltway

Let me start by stating plainly that I recoil at the concept of letting private corporations make millions of dollars by operating public roads.

Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate highway system with taxpayers’ dollars, and it’s been quite a success. So why are we letting a company based in Australia drain profits from our region for the next 75 years for running the new, confusingly tolled express lanes along 14 miles of the Beltway in Northern Virginia?

What’s next — paying millions of dollars in interest to China to cover the federal debt? Oh, wait, we’re doing that, too.

My griping makes no difference. The deal is signed. The express lanes are open, between the Springfield Mixing Bowl and Tysons Corner. (Few are using them yet, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Virginia recruited a private partner for the $1.9 billion project because the alternative of raising gasoline taxes – the way Ike did it — has become political poison.

As a result, all we can do now is study whether the new lanes actually succeed in speeding traffic in one of the area’s busiest corridors. If so, despite my instinctive dislike, it could make sense to use similar, privately run toll lanes to relieve traffic elsewhere across the region.

It’s too soon to judge, of course. It will take months or even years to know whether high-occupancy toll lanes can attract enough drivers to reduce congestion, while earning enough to keep the project financially sound.

Some variant of the model might work in spots such as I-395 and parts of I-66 in Northern Virginia, and parts of the Beltway and I-270 in suburban Maryland. Virginia is already planning to add such lanes along I-95 between Stafford County and Edsall Road in Springfield.

Time is needed partly because much of the public is still too bewildered about the new lanes to bother trying to use them. Ten drivers whom I interviewed at Tysons Corner Center on Friday either didn’t understand the new lanes or doubted they could afford them.

They all agreed that traffic in the new lanes seemed light. They had seen no impact on their own travel times. Several doubted that the benefits would offset the frustrations of many months of construction delays.

“I don’t see a high number of cars on [the express lanes]. Every day, the congestion is ridiculous, and it’s still ridiculous,” said Rick Parker, 51, who commutes to Tysons from his home in Springfield. “I hope it gets better, to justify all that construction and slow traffic.”

To measure the pros and cons of the new lanes, it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between two characteristics.

First, they’re run under a 75-year lease by a consortium dominated by Melbourne-based Transurban Group. So they’re “Aussie lanes” (a phrase I saw in a comment on The Post’s Web site).

Second, they offer shorter travel times to people with money. So they’re “Lexus lanes.”

The first aspect is the one I particularly dislike. I’m a fan of Australia. But every dollar that goes to the company’s shareholders is one that could be spent instead on other road or transit improvements in our region.

Fairfax Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee), who chairs the county’s transportation committee, supported the Beltway express lanes but is concerned about the corporate role.

“What I’m worried about is the trend that we don’t have the money to fix our own infrastructure so we’ll just turn it over to the private sector to fix it for us,” McKay said. “Then you’re backed up against the wall and you don’t sign the best deals for the taxpayers.”

As for the extra convenience for the affluent, I’m not crazy about that, either. It offends my egalitarian sentiments.

The tolls vary according to the level of traffic. Transurban says they are ultimately expected to be between $3 and $6 for a trip at rush hour.

But the toll system is worth it to add four lanes to the Beltway. The deal also included upgrading existing lanes in the same stretch of highway.

Two more bonuses encourage more efficient use of vehicles. One is the incentive to carpool. Vehicles carrying three people pay no toll, providing they have a new kind of EZPass transponder.

Another bonus is the opportunity to add bus routes along the Beltway. In the past, mass transit was hampered in that corridor because buses sat in traffic like everyone else.

Now, Transurban is obliged to adjust the tolls in real time to keep traffic in the express lanes moving at an average minimum speed of 45 mph. So we could see more buses, further reducing congestion.

In short, Aussie Lexus lanes stretch my principles. But I’ll tolerate a lot of elasticity to spend less time stuck on the Beltway.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

 
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