Lawsuit Over Virginia HOT Lanes Spurs Mixed Reactions from Advocacy Groups

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

Arlington County's federal lawsuit against proposed high-speed HOT lanes on interstates 95 and 395 drew praise Thursday from the Sierra Club and condemnation from AAA.

The suit, filed Wednesday, asks the court to order an environmental review to determine whether creating three high-occupancy toll lanes down the center of those highways would increase air pollution. The suit, which does not affect the Capital Beltway HOT lane construction, also contends that the project would result in congestion on streets that carry traffic to and from the interstates.

"It is particularly important that the Arlington lawsuit also focuses on the air quality impact of the HOT lane project and the increased number of vehicles adding pollution to nearby neighborhoods," Ana Prados of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club said in a statement.

Lon Anderson, director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the lawsuit was "disappointing, damaging and hypocritical."

"Virginia officials had already announced a delay to address local concerns and funding issues," Anderson said. "Does Arlington not think that having 100,000 vehicles or more barely moving for miles every morning and evening has no bad environmental impact on its environment and citizens?"

The lawsuit is "another example of a local government in Northern Virginia acting to impede a project of major regional importance," said Robert Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business-funded group that lobbies for transportation improvements.

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. On Monday, the state announced that the start of the I-395/95 portion, which would stretch from Massaponax in Spotsylvania County north to the Pentagon, would be delayed because of community concerns and the prospect that Fluor-Transurban would have trouble raising money in sagging financial markets.

Chase said the lawsuit "further discourages consortiums with private capital from entering into business in Virginia."

The objectives of the lawsuit were welcomed by Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

"We have long argued that [the Virginia Department of Transportation] didn't consider the additional traffic entering and exiting neighborhoods and the increased traffic at the already bottlenecked 14th Street bridge," said Schwartz, who advocates increased bus and rail service and carpooling to relieve congestion. "They have failed to focus on what would move the most people, rather than simply moving more cars and adding to traffic."

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

HOT lanes are free to carpools and buses, but drivers who don't meet vehicle-occupancy requirements would pay tolls. Drivers could also still use the free non-HOT lanes.

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