Arlington Sues to Stop HOT Lanes for Shirley Highway

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Arlington County filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday asking for a more thorough environmental review of high-speed toll lanes intended to relieve traffic congestion in and out of Washington.

The county contends that plans for high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on interstates 95 and 395 have proceeded without regard to the additional air pollution generated by increased traffic.

"They don't really know what the true impact will be," said Stephen MacIsaac, the county attorney. "We think there will be a lot of air quality effects. We're saying: 'Wait a minute. Slow down. Let's do this all properly.' "

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, specifically challenges a Federal Highway Administration decision to exempt the HOT lanes project from normal environmental scrutiny, an exemption based on the premise that it would have no significant impact on air quality.

Naming federal and state officials, the suit also says that improper designs in two locations -- the Shirlington off-ramp and the Eads Street terminus -- would cause traffic congestion on local streets.

"There are a lot of problems that haven't been addressed, and I'm worried that Arlington is going to be left to fix them," MacIsaac said.

State officials said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Although construction of HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway is well underway, plans to link them to similar lanes on I-95 and I-395 have not been completed. The state announced Monday that it planned to delay the project, which would extend the lanes between Massaponex in Spotsylvania County and the Pentagon.

Although the cost of the north-south lanes has not been established, state officials said they feared that the bond market might not support it, and they said they also wanted the delay to address concerns expressed by Arlington and other jurisdictions through which the highways pass.

Shirley Highway, which begins in Washington as I-395 and becomes I-95 in Springfield, is one of the most congested in the region, with traffic moving at a crawl during rush hour and often slowing to less than 20 mph even during off-peak hours.

The current plan for I-395/95 HOT lanes is to add a third lane to a pair of carpool lanes. HOT lanes are free to carpools and buses, but drivers who don't meet high-occupancy vehicle requirements would pay tolls. Variable pricing is used to keep traffic flowing during peak hours, with toll rates increasing as the lanes become more congested. Drivers who don't want to pay can use the free non-HOT lanes.

The HOT lane projects for the Beltway and I-395/95 are a public-private partnership between the state and a consortium called Fluor-Transurban. Fluor is an international construction company, and the Transurban Group operates toll roads in Australia.

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