Drivers on Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia will notice a change in the landscape this month. At first, they’ll see trees taken down, but the trees aren’t all that’s about to disappear. Over the next 30 months, a man-made part of the commuting landscape also will vanish.
I-95’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes will be replaced by a system unfamiliar to the D.C. region. Virginia drivers will see these new high-occupancy toll lanes first on the Capital Beltway. Those will open by the end of this year. By the end of 2014, the 14 miles of HOT lanes on the Beltway will link with 29 miles of HOT lanes on I-95.
(Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times) - The 95 Express Lanes project and construction for Metrorail’s Silver Line come together near Routes 7 and 123 in busy Tysons Corner.
That’s a huge change, so far untested on the tens of thousands of commuters whose travels will be affected each day. But the HOT lanes have the support of many state and local officials, Republicans and Democrats alike.
At a Tuesday groundbreaking presided over by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said Virginia is a conservative state, “not known for being bold.” But, she said, this new concept in commuting, “this really is bold.”
Although it may be bold for the D.C. region, the HOT lanes concept has been used elsewhere in the United States and around the world with some success.
The Virginia program has several goals: Increase the people-moving capacity of I-95 as the region grows; manage traffic in the new lanes by imposing a toll that rises and falls with the level of congestion; retain the incentive to carpool, the key feature of the HOV lanes; expand the park-and-ride facilities that feed the carpools; and get private companies to take on most of the burden for financing construction and operating the lanes.
Most drivers will need E-ZPass transponders to use the lanes. (Motorcyclists won’t need them.) There’s no cap on the toll rate. As traffic slows in peak periods, the toll will rise until some drivers decide they’d rather stick with the regular lanes.
Vehicles that meet the carpool requirement by having at least three people aboard will need to use a new transponder called an E-ZPass Flex. Drivers will flip a switch indicating to state police patrols that they are claiming the free ride for carpoolers.
Mahlon G. (Lon) Anderson, the managing director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, characterized the Virginia effort as “the beginning of the end of our being number one, two or three in traffic congestion,” a reference to the area’s status in the urban mobility surveys conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
AAA had been slow to embrace the HOT lanes, reflecting the concerns of many commuters that they will become “Lexus lanes,” offering a quick and reliable commute to those willing to pay a high toll at peak periods, while less-well-off drivers crawl along in the regular lanes. Advocates noted that commuter buses as well as carpools can use the HOT lanes for free. They also expect traffic will ease in the regular lanes as some drivers move to the HOT lanes.