Va. HOT Lane Project to Start Early Next Year

Capital Beltway traffic near Tysons Corner, shown from the Oak Street overpass, is expected to ease with the construction of express toll lanes. (2002 Photo By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2007

Construction of express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia will begin early next year and last five years, state transportation officials said yesterday as they detailed significant changes to a privately backed project that is intended to provide a quicker commute through one of the region's most clogged corridors.

The revamped 14-mile project, with a price tag that has nearly doubled to $1.7 billion, includes nine dedicated interchanges from the Beltway, including three new access points to Tysons Corner. Original plans called for several "slip ramps" that would have required drivers to cross several lanes of traffic to exit the four high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes.

The deal, which Virginia transportation officials are scheduled to announce today, also includes the construction of carpool lanes through the Springfield interchange and a reconfiguration of the Beltway's interchange with Interstate 66, including direct access to the high-occupancy lanes. The dedicated ramps are intended to smooth traffic flow, provide easier access to Tysons and make it more likely that motorists will pay the toll to use the new lanes.

Those changes and rising construction costs have added hundreds of millions of dollars to the project's cost, including about $409 million in public money for work that state officials originally said would be paid for by the private firms building it. Taxpayer money that was set aside will be used to pay for the Springfield and I-66 connections, and $157 million from the state's general fund will be used for the rest, officials said.

The construction will add another major disruption to Northern Virginia's highways, whose commuters recently celebrated the end of an eight-year overhaul of the Springfield interchange, the most ambitious and gridlock-spawning road construction project in Virginia history.

State officials said that all Beltway lanes will be kept open through rush hours and that road closures will happen only at night and on weekends. But they conceded that drivers will face delays. Unlike the Springfield interchange revamp and the rebuilding of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which largely affected commuter routes, the Beltway project will profoundly affect traffic into the retail and office destination of Tysons Corner.

The four new lanes, to be added to Interstate 495 between Georgetown Pike and Springfield, will be free for carpools of three or more people and allow for bus service on the Beltway, which is now nonexistent because traffic jams make scheduling impossible.

Other drivers will pay a toll that will fluctuate according to traffic volume, a system known as congestion pricing that supporters say ensures freedom from traffic backups. Overhead signs will alert drivers to the price at a given moment; the average trip during rush hour is expected to cost $5 to $6.

"The Capital Beltway is the busiest and most congested highway in Virginia, and we believe we have come up with an affordable solution that brings transit and HOV services to that corridor for the first time," said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's transportation secretary. "This means that a resident, say, from Aquia Harbour in Stafford County who works in Tysons Corner can pick up two neighbors and drive on a congestion-free facility all the way, or that same person can ride a bus to that location. . . . It's a brand-new travel option."

Faced with tight transportation budgets, Virginia and Maryland officials have turned in recent years to private backers for major highway projects. Under the terms of the agreement, the private companies building the project, Transurban and Fluor Enterprises, will operate and maintain the HOT lanes for 80 years, including the five years of construction. The companies will be responsible for any cost overruns.

The agreement allows Fluor Virginia of Arlington County and Transurban of Australia to keep the toll revenue. The companies have also teamed up on a separate plan to create 55 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes on interstates 95 and 395, between the 14th Street bridge and Stafford County.

Under the agreement to be announced today, the companies will build two lanes on each side of the Beltway. When construction is finished, the existing middle four lanes will be converted to HOT lanes. That ensures that motorists who do not use the HOT lanes will not lose any capacity and that the construction will occur along the shoulders.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the toll lanes will provide much-needed bus service and vehicle access to Tysons Corner, a booming junction that is a destination for more than 100,000 workers but is served by only a few highways. He said he has asked state officials to provide detailed plans for traffic management through Tysons during construction. The existing gridlock in Tysons is sure to be compounded by the Beltway widening and other future projects, including rail to Dulles International Airport.

"The fact is there's going to be some temporary disruptions. We learned how to manage that . . . in Springfield on one of the largest, most complex engineering projects on the East Coast. So we need to make sure we take those lessons learned and now apply them to Tysons," Connolly said. But he added: "We have to make these improvements. It's now or later, and if we've got the funding in hand . . . it seems to be a prudent investment."

Some critics who initially scorned HOT lanes as "Lexus lanes," saying that they favor the wealthy, have come around based on studies showing they are used in other states by people of all income levels. But not everyone cheers the Virginia Beltway plan.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the District-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, complained yesterday that state officials ceded too much power over the future of the region's transportation patterns by relinquishing operation of the HOT lanes to the private firms.

"I would argue that there really is no real private cash on the table that comes from these deals," Schwartz said. "All these contractors are doing is serving as a sort of bond agent for the state."

Homer called the Beltway project a "sound business investment" for Virginia.

"We could not afford to construct this project using traditional transportation revenue sources. Period," he said. "For $157 million in traditional revenue sources, Northern Virginia is getting transit and HOV connections . . . that simply do not exist today."

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