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Private Project Aims for Greater Access to Tysons

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

The private group building toll lanes on the Capital Beltway plans to triple the number of direct connections to Tysons Corner, providing increased access to the project's primary customer base.

The 14-mile Beltway project, which would run between Springfield and Georgetown Pike, is planned as the first section of what is expected to be a network of privately run express toll lanes in the Washington region. The ability to move customers in and out of Tysons is key to its success.

The latest plan by the project's developers calls for three exits directly from the toll lanes, which would be built in the center of the Beltway, to roads in Tysons. One of the exits would link the lanes to Route 7, while two others would connect to roads owned by developers.

Previous plans called for just one Tysons exit, at Route 123, which project developers and state transportation officials said would tax an overtaxed road.

"The 123 area is already challenged," said George Biediger, spokesman for Fluor Enterprises Inc. and Transurban Inc., the companies building the toll lanes. "This will spread traffic among a number of intersections and minimize congestion."

Fluor-Transurban is negotiating with the Macerich Co., owner of Tysons Corner Center, to allow cars to exit onto Westpark Drive. That would allow drivers to go straight from the high-occupancy or toll, or HOT, lanes directly into the shopping center access road. Macerich has already offered to expand the bridge as part of a planned rezoning and expansion. A Macerich spokeswoman said the company is in the "information stage" of talks with Fluor-Transurban.

The road's developers also are negotiating with the West Group for permission to build an interchange to Jones Branch Drive. The plan would put a bridge across the Beltway linking Jones Branch with Scotts Crossing Road. Calls to two spokesmen for the West Group seeking comment were not returned.

It is unclear how the additional interchanges would be funded. Fluor-Transurban has said it will ask Virginia to contribute to the overall project.

Other interchanges for the HOT lanes, which would add two lanes to the Beltway in each direction, are planned at Braddock Road, Route 50, Route 29, Interstate 66 and the Dulles Toll Road.

Virginia and Maryland leaders have been counting on privately funded highways as a quick, cheap way to ease congestion when there is little public money to build big projects. Fluor and Transurban also are teaming up on a separate plan to create 55 miles of toll lanes on I-95 and I-395 between the 14th Street bridge and Spotsylvania County.

Maryland officials have asked the private sector for ideas to build express toll lanes along I-270 and sections of the Beltway. They also are exploring similar projects on I-95 and have begun building one north of Baltimore.

The lanes in Virginia would be free for buses and vehicles with three or more people; other drivers would pay a toll that would increase with traffic volume. Backers of the plans say "congestion pricing" would virtually guarantee that the lanes won't become congested.

Construction on the Beltway project, estimated at nearly $1 billion, could start as soon as the end of 2007, and the lanes could open to traffic as soon as 2012.

How to get drivers in and out of Tysons has preoccupied traffic planners in the private consortium and at VDOT. They have already discussed 24 versions of the project's design; the plan for three Tysons exits has emerged in recent weeks.

Bill Lecos, president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, praised the increased access to Tysons. He said Fluor-Transurban's business plan lines up with what area employers and employees want: a congestion-free trip in and out of the area.

"If they bottle up the interchanges, they know that their business model suffers," Lecos said.

George Boothe, VDOT's project manager for the Beltway HOT lanes, said the new configuration still needs to be studied in detail using computer modeling and traffic counts. But, he said, "we believe it is a good, workable solution."

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