For Virginia commuters, new era begins with HOT lanes

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 10, 2012

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.

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

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 95 Express Lanes project and construction for Metrorail’s Silver Line come together near Routes 7 and 123 in busy Tysons Corner. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times)

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.

The concept

The 95 Express Lanes, as the project is officially known, will operate between Garrisonville Road in Stafford County and Edsall Road, just inside the Beltway on I-395.

The northern part of the route covers what are now the HOV lanes. For the 14 miles between the Prince William Parkway and Edsall Road, the HOV configuration will go from two to three lanes. The project will upgrade the two HOV lanes in the six miles between the Prince William Parkway and Route 234. To the south, new lanes will be built along the nine miles to Garrisonville Road.

There will be eight new or improved access points to and from the HOT lanes, the Virginia Department of Transportation said. For carpoolers, the project will add some park-and-ride lots and expand others.

The 95 Express Lanes will connect with the 495 Express Lanes in Springfield. Unlike the new Beltway lanes, these lanes will be reversible, like the HOV lanes are. But basic operations will be similar: no toll booths. The variable toll will be paid electronically.

The construction

The project is scheduled to cost about $925 million. VDOT’s share is about $71 million. Most of the financial burden will be borne by the private partnership, a joint venture between Transurban DRIVe and Fluor Enterprises, in a deal that is similar to the one struck for the new Beltway lanes. The private partners recoup their investment by tolling the lanes over the course of a 76-year lease.

Some of the work on I-95 will be familiar to those who drive through the Beltway HOT lanes construction area. Nine new bridges will be built and three widened, sound walls and new highway drainage will be installed, lanes will be paved, gantries will be installed for tolling and traffic monitoring, and Express Lanes signs will be positioned.

Although still a complex work, the 95 Express Lanes are in some ways easier to build than their companions on the Beltway, where every bridge, overpass and interchange between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road had to be redone to accommodate the four new lanes.

The impact

Construction may occur day and night, but project managers plan to keep the HOV lanes open during rush hours.

The northern section of the HOV lanes will be realigned and slightly narrowed during the first phase of construction, VDOT said. Traffic will be shifted to the right, onto what is now the shoulder. Temporary concrete barriers will be set up on the left side of the HOV lanes and on the left shoulder of the regular southbound lanes to make room for workers.

They will remove the existing barrier between the HOV and regular lanes to install new drainage and foundations for signs and monitoring equipment. HOV traffic probably will be slowed going through these work zones.

Full closings of the HOV lanes may occur from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. every night, and one lane may be closed until 5 a.m.

Near Dumfries and in the southern zone beyond where the HOV lanes end, earth-moving equipment will be clearing trees and brush, installing drainage and building up the surface for new lanes. In this area, VDOT expects the impact on traffic to be minor.

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