Virginia advances plan for I-95 HOT lanes

Robert Thomson
Columnist September 24, 2011

A study released this month by the Virginia Department of Transportation makes the case that Interstate 95 in the D.C. suburbs will eventually fail its drivers and proposes high-occupancy toll lanes as a solution for solo motorists, carpoolers and transit users.

Publication of the study, an environmental assessment of the HOT lanes project, is the state’s latest step toward adding another ambitious megaproject to the area’s transportation system. Three public meetings are scheduled for this week to review the plan.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive
The project

This is a shortened version of the earlier HOT lanes proposal for the I-95 corridor. In February, the state lopped off the top, announcing it that would not build the originally planned portion north of the Capital Beltway along Interstate 395.

Instead, the state proposed a 29-mile project between Garrisonville Road in Stafford County and Edsall Road, just north of the Beltway. VDOT said construction could begin as early as spring and probably would take three years to complete.

The new environmental assessment covers a 46-mile route that also ends at Edsall Road but begins about a mile south of Route 17 (Mills Drive) in Spotsylvania County. That southern portion could be built later and is not a part of the current program.


The HOT lanes corridor is in the median of I-95 and consists of a two-lane reversible, limited-access express route from the southern end to just north of the Prince William Parkway interchange (Exit 158). There, it would expand to three lanes, ending at the Beltway, with a transition to the I-395 high-occupancy vehicle lanes and general-purpose lanes near the Edsall Road interchange.

The I-95 HOT lanes would connect with the 14 miles of HOT lanes under construction on the western side of the Beltway, which are scheduled for completion at the end of next year. The operations would be similar. Drivers who don’t meet the carpool requirements would be charged a variable toll, depending on the level of congestion. But the I-95 proposal has generated much more debate than the Beltway route.

The Beltway program involves construction of four new lanes. The I-95 plan partially replaces the HOV lanes. Those are among the most successful HOV lanes in the nation, thanks in good measure to the informal system of carpooling known as slugging. Even though three carpoolers would still ride for free, many slugs think that allowing solo drivers to use the express lanes for a fee will undermine the incentive that makes slugging successful.

Alternatives

The only alternative included in the study is doing nothing. That means leaving three to four general-purpose travel lanes in each direction and a two-lane HOV route within the median from just south of the Route 234 (Dumfries Road) interchange to the Beltway.

That doesn’t mean there are no other alternatives, just that they weren’t considered in the study. In theory, Virginia could choose to add capacity by widening I-95 in some areas without the financial aid of a public-private partnership, just as VDOT did recently along the six miles between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway. The state could choose a program more heavily dependent on transit to reduce congestion, or modify land-use planning and encourage telecommuting to reduce the demand for I-95.

“I found their environmental assessment to be completely inadequate and not an appropriate basis for making a multimillion-dollar decision or assigning [the lanes] to a private company for 75 years” through a public-private partnership, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “There’s no analysis of alternatives whatsoever. They look at two options: building HOT lanes and no action.”

Growing need

The study cites the transportation challenge created by an expanding population in the I-95 corridor and the job growth anticipated for Northern Virginia. The travel generated by this growth will further increase traffic on I-95, the study said.

“Traditional highway capacity expansion is not an option to meet the growing interstate travel demand because such expansion has become increasingly expensive and unaffordable, and the human impacts and physical constraints in the highly urbanized areas in the northern section of the project corridor make it exceedingly difficult to implement,” the study said.

Meanwhile, it continued, “I-95 has become so congested in recent years that the general-purpose lanes, and oftentimes the HOV lanes, cannot provide reliable travel times during the peak periods.”

Using the letter grades that highway engineers apply in measuring the performance of roads, the study said the level of service along I-95 will degrade to an F, or failing rating, throughout most of the corridor by 2035.

This won’t work for solo drivers, carpools or transit, the study said. Under existing conditions, all vehicles, whether single-occupant, HOV or transit, must use the general-purpose lanes south of Dumfries. So there’s no advantage for those who carpool or use transit. Meanwhile, the study said, the HOV lanes are becoming increasingly congested, diminishing the incentive to carpool.

Why go HOT?

By creating the HOT option, the study said, Virginia could reduce daily congestion and accommodate travel demands more efficiently. Travel times would be more reliable. Travel options would increase because ridesharing and transit would be more attractive. Solo drivers would have a new option for bypassing congested areas.

“The I-95 HOT lanes provide multiple regional benefits, including reduced travel times in one of our most congested corridors and the elimination of the Route 234 choke point,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “They also constitute an integral portion of a future regional bus rapid transit network with seamless connections between Stafford County and points south with Tysons Corner and the I-66 and Dulles corridors.”

The public meetings

The three public meetings, from 5 to 8 p.m., are scheduled for:

●Monday, at Botts Fire Hall, 1306 F St., Woodbridge.

●Wednesday, at Waterford at Springfield, 6715 Commerce St., Springfield.

●Thursday, at North Stafford High School, 839 Garrisonville Rd., Stafford.

There will be no formal presentation, but project representatives will be available to answer questions. VDOT said oral and written comments will be accepted at the meetings.

Comments regarding the project design and environmental analysis also can be sent to: John Lynch, regional transportation program director, Virginia Megaprojects, 6363 Walker Lane, Suite 500, Alexandria, Va. 22310, or to info@I-95hotlanes.com by Oct. 14. (Put “I-95 Joint Meetings” in the subject line.)

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