Va. HOT lanes may stretch farther to Md.

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post staff writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Virginia's high-occupancy toll lanes will be extended a mile and a half closer to the Maryland border if civic groups and the state buy into a proposal from the private firm building the new lanes.

The extension would carry HOT lane traffic on the Capital Beltway from the current planned ending point just north of the Dulles Toll Road almost to the George Washington Parkway, which runs near the banks of the Potomac River.

The price tag for the proposed extension has not been made public, but it would be paid for by Fluor-Transurban, the consortium of two private firms that partnered with the Virginia Department of Transportation to build the lanes.

"We do not anticipate the state funding this," said Jennifer Aument, project spokeswomen for Transurban. "The cost would be born by the private partners, hopefully with the help of federal loans."

The HOT lanes already are Virginia's most ambitious and expensive highway project, widening the Beltway by four lanes for 14 miles from the Springfield interchange to just past the Dulles Toll Road at a cost of $2 billion.

Once the current construction is completed in 2012, drivers will have the option of using free lanes or paying to use HOT lanes, which are expected to provide smoother, faster travel during peak hours. The HOT lanes will be operated by the private consortium, and tolls will vary based on time of day and volume of traffic.

The extension proposal calls for narrowing the HOT system from four lanes into two -- one in each direction -- that would continue almost to the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac.

Although Aument said the proposal was in the "very, very early stages" of discussion, with HOT lane construction crews already working on the current job, adding 1.6 miles could be done relatively swiftly.

"They could do it very quickly because they're already there," said Steven M. Titunik, spokesmen for VDOT's Megaprojects. "It's very simple. It's just an extension."

Titunik said the extension was "not a done deal, but from VDOT's position, it's a good thing as along as they pick up the cost."

Widening the Beltway for the additional portion also would require replacing two bridges that carry traffic over the highway at Old Dominion Drive and Georgetown Pike.

Aument said those bridges are more than 40 years old and due to be replaced. Fluor-Transurban would also cover that cost.

The proposed extension is on a section of the Beltway that passes through McLean, and Fluor-Transurban brought that community into the discussion early on.

"There are pros and con," Rob Jackson, president of the McLean Citizens Association, said after hearing presentations on the proposal. "I just don't think we're ready to say 'yea' or 'nay.' We need more information."

Jackson said an extension that speeds traffic north would help relieve congestion on local streets in McLean caused by Maryland drivers who bail out of the Beltway when traffic backs up during the evening rush. The downside of the extension, he said, would be that McLean residents would have to drive farther north to get access to the HOT lanes.

"Essentially, there would be no way to get on it without going to Tysons Corner or up near Maryland," he said. Jackson said his group will hear more about the proposal at its annual meeting in two weeks.

If the extension gets state and local approval, the next issue for highway planners is how best to feed Virginia's HOT lanes into a similar system once the Beltway crosses into Maryland, according to Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group for highway planning.

"Eventually, you've got to extend that across the bridge and tie it into something comparable in Maryland," Chase said, "at least until [the Beltway] reaches the I-270 corridor."

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