By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005
Construction of the first major expansion of the Capital Beltway in a generation could start as soon as next year, Virginia transportation officials said yesterday after signing a deal with two private firms to build toll lanes for a speedier ride on 14 miles of the chronically clogged highway.
The deal calls for adding two lanes in each direction of the Beltway, separated from other traffic, between Springfield and Georgetown Pike near the Maryland border. The high-occupancy toll -- or HOT -- lanes would be free for vehicles containing three or more people; other drivers would pay to use them. To keep the lanes from clogging, tolls would increase with the amount of traffic.
The state would not have to pay anything for the new lanes. The private companies would invest the entire $900 million cost of the project in exchange for all or part of the toll revenue.
"For drivers in Northern Virginia, it'll mean new capacity, which is something that has not been offered in a long time," said Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet. "It means a new opportunity for HOV and transit, and it means a choice for drivers who want to pay for a faster commute."
The lanes represent the first step in what regional leaders hope is an extensive network of toll lanes across the region. Virginia officials are considering additional HOT lanes on parts of Interstates 95 and 395, and Maryland officials are exploring express toll lanes on the Beltway, I-270, the Baltimore Beltway and I-95 north of Baltimore.
Maryland officials said yesterday that they are in the early stage of studying Beltway toll lanes. "We're a few steps behind Virginia," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
Critics once derided such lanes as "Lexus lanes" -- arguing that they favor the wealthy and were a double tax on roads that motorists already pay for -- but have changed their minds because studies have shown that they are used by people of all incomes and, in this case, because no state money is being used.
The concept is in use in California and Texas and is being considered in several other states as governments look for ways to finance roads when most budgets are shrinking. HOT lanes are scheduled to open in Minneapolis and Denver this year.
Local officials said they envision a limited number of people paying what could be several dollars a day to use the lanes but a greater number of people using them when they urgently need to get to work, a child's ballgame or elsewhere.
State officials said that Fluor Enterprises Inc. and Transurban Group will pay to build the lanes, which could open in 2010. They will also operate and maintain them. State and company officials said they haven't worked out how the firms will recoup their investment, but a likely scenario is that they will receive revenue through 2065. State officials added that there would be a cap to prevent "obscene" profits.
Tolls would rise during the morning and evening rush hours when traffic balloons. State officials said they're not sure how much the tolls will be. In other states, tolls start at 25 cents and can hit $8 for a one-way trip.
The lanes will be in the middle of the Beltway and will have several access points, including one at Tysons Corner. Through drivers would merge back into the regular lanes at either end.
State officials said that a minimal amount of property is needed and that six homes would have to be purchased to widen the Beltway.
Transportation experts said there are concerns that come with this type of deal, especially because so much money is involved. For the firms to make a profit, they have an incentive to reduce the number of free users. The easiest way to do that is to raise the number of people required for free access, which the state can do.
"If you're expecting to get HOV-3 and ride for free, it's not clear that's going to be possible at this stage," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Herb Morgan, vice president of operations for Fluor, said his company is basing its calculations on vehicles containing three people.
Another concern is enforcement, which is a chronic problem in carpool lanes. Ken Daley of Transurban, which will manage the toll system, said that motorists will be monitored by video or police.
The deal marks a new standard in Virginia for private road investment. For the past several years, Virginia has partnered with private firms to build a handful of roads at substantial cost to the state. Other projects have stalled because the state doesn't have funds to make deals work.
In the case of the Beltway project, Virginia announced its intention to work with Fluor last summer but lacked roughly $200 million that was needed. So Fluor found another investor to share the cost.