Blocking traffic in Northern Virginia

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

ARLINGTON COUNTY has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' dollars, and may yet spend more, in an effort to block major improvements to interstates 95 and 395, one of the most traffic-clogged commuter corridors in the Washington area. In a federal lawsuit filed last year, the county advanced an array of arguments, including a doozy alleging that adding capacity to the corridor is a racist project. The plan, said the county, is "intended to serve the interests of more affluent, largely Caucasian citizens from Stafford and Spotsylvania counties over minority (primarily low-income) residents . . ." By this logic, Metrorail could also be classified as racist; after all, most of its passengers are white.

The lawsuit's target is a private partnership's plan to build high-speed toll and carpool lanes along a 37-mile stretch of the interstate between Fredericksburg and the Pentagon. The lanes would be reserved for buses, carpools carrying at least two passengers at rush hour and solo drivers willing to pay a variable toll, which might soar during peak periods, in return for avoiding the congestion of the regular lanes. About a fifth of the consortium's $1 billion investment would go to buying and operating buses to ply the new high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and to building thousands of parking spaces for park-and-ride bus passengers. That would ensure the project would serve not only more cars but more people, too.

The proposal by Fluor-Transurban, a private consortium, offers hundreds of thousands of Virginians the prospect of major improvements in their daily commute, plus the prospect of economic benefits. The need for more capacity in the I-95 corridor is clear. Some 250,000 vehicles pass daily through the Springfield interchange, one of the corridor's main junctions, and an additional 50,000 are expected over the next 20 years. It would be terrific if all those people, or even most of them, used transit -- specifically Metrorail -- instead of the roads. It would be equally pleasant to imagine Virginia would pick up the tab for expanding the highway. But neither scenario is remotely possible in the foreseeable future. By contrast, Fluor's proposal offers a way to absorb the traffic.

Arlington argues that the proposal carries risks -- that affluent solo drivers might clog the HOT lanes; that pollution might afflict exits where traffic backs up; that Virginia may be liable if it turns out, decades from now, that the consortium's profit projections were too rosy. County officials say a full-blown environmental study, dismissed as unnecessary in the waning days of the Bush administration, is needed.

We suspect that NIMBY-ism, obstructionism and ideology stand behind the county's objections. But it is also true that Fluor's proposal is enormous in scope and reach; it would require Virginia to cede control of a major commuting corridor for most of the rest of this century. Given that, it's reasonable for Virginia to require a full environmental impact study and to address whatever concerns are raised in that process. Once that is complete, Arlington should stand down before it throws further taxpayer dollars down the sinkhole of litigation.

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