Consortium Offers Toll Road Fixes

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005

The consortium that has offered Virginia a lump sum of more than $1 billion in exchange for revenue on the Dulles Toll Road for 50 years has outlined 19 upgrades to the highway that it hopes will help sway public opinion in favor of the unusual proposal.

Topping the list are improvements to the ramps that link the eastern end of the toll road to the Capital Beltway. A new ramp would take drivers directly from the Beltway to the Dulles Airport Access Road, a separate roadway that is not part of the proposed deal. A direct link to the access road would allow drivers to avoid cutting across several lanes of traffic on the toll road, a maneuver that causes daily tie-ups.

The group also wants to upgrade the ramps that take drivers from the toll road to the outer loop of the Beltway.

The consortium said it would immediately begin repaving the eight-lane road, a project that it said could be completed in about four months, and would refurbish several bridges and sound walls along the route.

Most of the other fixes would involve widening or lengthening ramp lanes and converting toll plazas so that fees would be paid electronically, changes that would improve traffic flow by easing backups, the group said.

The proposed upgrades include widening the long westbound exit ramp at Wiehle Avenue as well as the eastbound entry ramp. The exit lane to the ramp at Reston Parkway would be lengthened, and drivers would be able to make a continuous right turn onto the parkway. Other minor improvements for the interchange and parkway also are planned.

A separate loop ramp would be built to connect the southbound lanes of Centreville Road to the eastbound toll road. Entry and exit ramps would be widened at Hunter Mill Road.

Toll plazas at all these intersections would be upgraded and converted so that tolls can be paid electronically.

The Dulles Toll Road is a 14-mile highway connecting the Beltway to the Dulles Greenway, a privately operated toll road that is not part of the consortium's proposal. The highway is one of Northern Virginia's most-used commuter routes, carrying about 200,000 vehicles a day.

Morning and night, it is filled almost bumper-to-bumper with traffic heading to and from some of the region's largest employment centers at Tysons Corner, Reston and Herndon. The road is also something of a main street for fast-growing communities in eastern Loudoun County and more established areas such as McLean.

Tolls on the road are 50 to 75 cents for two-axle vehicles. Tolls were increased in May to help pay for Virginia's portion of a proposed Metrorail line through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue. State officials have approved a second increase that would take effect in 2010 to help pay for the extension of that line to Dulles International Airport. State officials said they would maintain control over toll rates by the terms of any deal.

The cost estimate for the first phase of the Metrorail extension rose in June from $1.5 billion to as much as $2.4 billion, a 60 percent increase that threatens the financing plan for the rail project.

Members of the private consortium said the deal is a way to pay for the Metrorail expansion, even as costs rise, as well as to improve the toll road.

"We are stepping in to provide excess capital," Curtis M. Coward, a principal of the Infrastructure Investment Group, a member of the consortium, said at a news conference last week.

The consortium said the roadway improvements would address criticism that drivers were being forced to pay for a transit line that would benefit them little. None of the 19 improvements is proposed, scheduled or funded as part of the state's six-year transportation plan.

The group behind the proposal includes some of the biggest names in the road-building industry, including Clark Construction Group, Shirley Contracting, Dewberry LLC and Autostrade, which operates the Dulles Greenway. The group also includes former governor Gerald L. Baliles (D) and J. Kenneth Klinge, a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

State officials reacted to the unsolicited offer with cautious interest. Many transportation officials and Virginia politicians favor selling some state assets in return for large sums of money upfront. But others are reluctant to undertake such a long-term trade of assets, especially the Dulles Toll Road. In fiscal 2005, which ended June 30, the tolls generated a $28.5 million surplus.

Officials are clear on one thing: They would like more offers from the private sector. Under the state's public-private transportation act, the consortium's unsolicited offer opened a 90-day window for other investors to step forward. The window for rival offers closes Oct. 28.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company