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Steep Prices Projected for HOT Lanes

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007; A01

Drivers in express toll lanes planned for Interstates 95 and 395 would pay as much as a dollar a mile in some spots along the 36-mile route during peak times, the highest rate for a commute in the country, officials from the companies building the new-style highway said as they filed a detailed proposal yesterday.

But regional transportation planners estimate that the cost for a rush-hour ride on the optional lanes probably will be far steeper: as much as $1.60 a mile in crowded segments. They estimate that a 21-mile, rush-hour trip from the Pentagon to Prince William Parkway would cost as much as $22.28. A round-trip during peak hours could cost $41.46.

Buses and carpools of three or more people would continue to ride free, as would drivers in the highways' regular lanes.

The project, being built by Fluor Virginia Inc. and Transurban (USA) Development Inc., is one of several that could turn the Washington area into one of the most heavily tolled regions in the country. The companies have also agreed to build high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes on a stretch of the Capital Beltway between Springfield and Georgetown Pike, and Virginia officials are looking to add them elsewhere.

Maryland has begun construction on express toll lanes north of Baltimore and is pursuing plans to build them on its portion of the Beltway and Interstate 270. The planned intercounty connector between Montgomery and Prince George's counties will be a toll road.

What makes HOT lanes so alluring to transportation planners is that, for a price, they virtually guarantee a congestion-free ride because tolls would be adjusted every few minutes to manage the number of users. Planners also see HOT lanes as a way to boost transit service by providing open roads for buses. Local officials have encouraged companies to build them because there is little public money available.

The $882 million project on I-95/395 would convert the two existing carpool lanes. The companies would add a third lane and provide new ramps and bridges and increased transit service, including a dedicated bus ramp to the Pentagon. The project would also extend the lanes nine miles south of their current terminus in Dumfries. Eventually, the companies plan to extend them south to Spotsylvania County.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said HOT lanes are needed on I-95/395. "If we do nothing, the HOV lanes, slugs, carpools and bus service in the I-95 corridor will cease to function," Homer said. "The HOV lanes today are congested two days a week and in short order, three, four or five days a week."

Jennifer Aument, a spokeswoman for the project, added that "drivers will always have a choice. They can choose to use the HOT lanes or choose to use the regular lanes for free."

Nonetheless, many public officials and commuters in the I-95 corridor oppose the lanes, in part because of what they see as excessive prices.

"HOT lanes are a sham," said Corey A. Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, which voted two weeks ago to oppose the project. "You have a very congested area combined with an affluent workforce. People will pay literally anything to get out of the main lanes into the special lanes. The result is that only the very affluent will be in those lanes, and there will be a lot of them."

Aside from the new roads, fees are expected to rise on the region's two existing toll roads: the Dulles Greenway and Dulles Toll Road. The private owners of the 14-mile Greenway, from Dulles International Airport to Leesburg, have asked Virginia regulators for permission to raise rush-hour tolls from $3.20 to $4.80 by 2012.

Management of the Dulles Toll Road was recently transferred from the state of Virginia to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which plans to raise tolls regularly to pay for an extension of Metro's Orange Line to Tysons Corner and Dulles Airport.

Financial projections indicate that under the authority's agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation, the average toll would triple by 2030, the authority said. There is no cap on future tolls, though, and the authority can raise them on its own.

Those tolls are small change compared with what drivers could pay on HOT lanes planned for the Beltway and I-395 and I-95.

"HOT lanes are different things," said Robert W. Poole Jr., director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation and an early proponent of HOT lanes. "The main, important purpose of toll pricing is to manage the traffic flow so they can deliver what they are promising to customers: a congestion-free ride."

Poole added that the toll rates on the I-95/395 project "would definitely be the highest anyone has ever seen."

The highway with the highest toll rate per mile is currently California's SR-91, which has a peak rate of $9.25 for a 10-mile ride.

Yesterday, VDOT filed the Fluor-Transurban proposal with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board. The plan calls for construction to begin next year and for the lanes to open for service in 2010. It includes $390 million in additional transit services and envisions six new park-and-ride facilities with a total of 3,000 spaces.

The proposal would have to be approved by the COG planning board, made up of state and local officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District.

Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation planning for COG and the author of the analysis of projected toll rates, said tolls for the I-95 and I-395 HOT lanes would have to be set high because of all the bottlenecks on I-95. He added that high tolls aren't all bad because they will encourage people to carpool.

But if Washington area drivers want to be sure of getting somewhere on time, Kirby said, they had "better figure on paying better than 30 bucks."

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