Arlington County wins a battle over HOT lanes but may lose a war

Thursday, February 10, 2011; 7:48 PM

ARLINGTON COUNTY officials continue to block major improvements to Northern Virginia's most critical highways. For years they have opposed efforts to widen Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway, thereby contributing to one of the worst commuter bottlenecks in the mid-Atlantic states. Now they have stymied a plan that aimed to unclog Interstates 95 and 395 on the back porch of the nation's capital. A fair question to ask now is: Who has been hurt most by Arlington's actions - its neighbors, who had hoped for solutions to fight traffic in and out of the District, or itself?

The county filed a lawsuit in 2009 to block a private partnership's plan to improve Interstates 95 and 395 by building high-speed toll and carpool lanes along a 37-mile stretch between Fredericksburg, 52 miles south of Washington, and the Pentagon. The lanes would be reserved for buses (whose numbers would be sharply augmented) and carpools at rush hour. It would also be available to solo drivers electing to pay a variable toll, which would climb during peak periods, to avoid traffic jams in the regular lanes.

There were legitimate questions about the project, including whether solo drivers would clog the so-called high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and what to do decades from now if the project's engineering, traffic or financial projections turn out to have been miscalculated. After all, the state would cede control of the project to the private partnership, potentially leaving taxpayers will little recourse.

Rather than press for solutions, however, Arlington did its best to halt progress, and it succeeded. Among other arguments, the county in its lawsuit advanced the preposterous theory that the project would favor rich, white exurbanite commuters at the expense of poorer, minority residents who, clustered in the inner city and close-in suburbs, would benefit less from adding capacity to the I-95 corridor. Last week, Virginia officials announced they would drop plans to build the HOT lanes on a six-mile segment inside the Beltway rather than continue to fight Arlington's obstructionism. Instead, they will focus efforts on adding the new HOT lanes in Stafford and Fairfax counties and connecting those with identical ones under construction on the Beltway, serving Tysons Corner and other congested areas beyond Arlington's reach.

Well satisfied with the result, Arlington officials are dropping their lawsuit. But the effect of their NIMBYism will live on, frustrating the county's populous and fast-growing neighbors to the west and the south. Nearly half of all of Virginia's population growth in the past decade has been in the jurisdictions between Fredericksburg and the Beltway. Hundreds of thousands of commuters who ply that route are desperate for a faster commute in and out of the District; those wishes have now been thwarted. In the process, though, Arlington may well have undercut its own economic interests by making it increasingly difficult for the county's own employers to attract workers willing to brave traffic inside the Beltway.

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