New HOT lane plan for Virginia's I-95 corridor

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 7:12 PM

High-occupancy toll lanes are back on for the Interstate 95 corridor in Virginia, but plans to extend them six miles through Arlington County and Alexandria have been scrapped for now, officials said Thursday.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton announced a new HOT lanes project that will reach from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to Edsall Road in Fairfax County and link directly to Capital Beltway (I-495) HOT lanes under construction. He also said plans for a ramp connecting high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-395 to Seminary Road will move forward.

The original proposal, which would extend HOT lanes to the District on I-395, has been delayed because of an ongoing lawsuit filed by Arlington County in August 2009 , Connaughton said.

The influx of thousands of federal workers to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax and the Mark Center in Alexandria will aggravate congestion along the I-95 corridor, Connaughton said. "Honestly, the commonwealth simply cannot wait any longer to start making improvements in this corridor," he said in a conference call with reporters.

Arlington sued state and federal transportation agencies, contending that proper environmental reviews had not been done. The lawsuit also says traffic congestion would spread throughout the area and could unfairly affect minority populations.

Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the Arlington County Board, said the original project was held up because there was no money to fund it, not because of the county's lawsuit.

"The key thing about their announcement is that they will go through the proper process under [the National Environmental Policy Act] by reviewing and mitigating any problems," Zimmerman (D) said. "If they had done that on the I-395 project there would not have been a lawsuit. I'm certainly glad to see they are going to do that the right way."

The nearly $1 billion HOT lanes project will be managed as a public-private partnership with Fluor-Transurban, Connaughton said.

Typically, the commonwealth contributes about 25 percent of a project's cost in such situations.Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's (R) transportation plan has requested about $1.5 billion for the project, he said.

Two reversible HOV/HOT lanes would be built over nine miles from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to Route 234 in Dumfries. A third lane would be added from the Prince William County Parkway to the area near Edsall Road in Fairfax County. Flyover ramps would connect the HOT lanes on I-95 to the HOT lanes on the Beltway or to non-HOV lanes on I-395.

Connaughton said that the state would involve the affected communities in the project from the start and that state officials would be able to "oversee all elements of construction and operation of this project."

Planning and design work for the HOT lanes project and the ramp to the Mark Center would be done as quickly as possible in an effort to begin construction in 2012.

The reversible ramp from the HOV lanes to the Mark Center is in the early stages and needs considerable design and engineering work. Alexandria and state transportation officials has estimated that similar ramps cost $80 million to $100 million.

The Mark Center, at the intersection of I-395 and Seminary Road, will house 6,400 federal workers by September and has been a matter of debate for local, state and federal officials.

Three Virginia members of Congress - Rep. James P. Moran Jr. and Sens. Jim Webb and Mark R. Warner - welcomed Connaughton's announcement in a joint statement, but they said the move to the Mark Center should be delayed until the ramp is completed.

"Construction of the new ramp will unavoidably disrupt traffic flow on the road even more, creating an untenable situation," the statement read.

The federal lawmakers have been asking state and Defense Department officials for additional funding and studies of the site, and they said they would continue to fight for parking restrictions there if the Army fails to adjust the move-in date.

The new proposal still does not address congestion north of the Beltway, said Ron Kirby, a transportation planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The original project included additional roadway capacity and significant increases in bus service into the District, paid for in part by tolls, Kirby said.

"There are some real downsides to this change in terms of capacity to this corridor. No question about it ," he said.

Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said the new project could boost interstate highway travel and job centers outside the Beltway, where most of the region's population growth is expected to occur.

"Arguably, it could work to the detriment of Arlington County's job creation and job growth. It is all about proximity to workforce," Chase said.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors previously had not supported any changes to the original HOT lane proposal, board ChairmanSharon Bulova (D) said. But supervisors may support the new proposal because it includes transit service between the Franconia-Springfield Metro station and Tysons Corner, as well as the ramp to the Mark Center, she said.

"The devil is in the details," Bulova said. "We want to make sure we are providing sufficient capacity and traffic flow for commuters coming from the south and from Fairfax County towards the north. We are disappointed the project is not the original project. However, it looks like there is something there we can work with."

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