Motorists would drive on the Capital Beltway during rush hour at the mind-blowing rate of a mile a minute. Drivers would zip from Fredericksburg to Frederick without hitting a single traffic jam.
In this strange, new world, people would run errands whenever they pleased, vacationers would leave town without spending hours in traffic, and express bus service would be launched on the region's major commuter routes.
But these dream scenarios come with a cost: a toll as high as a dollar a mile in heavily traveled areas during peak times. A 56-mile commute between the Fredericksburg area and Washington could cost as much as $30 if a driver chose the traffic-free route, according to one analysis.
These 21st-century traveling possibilities are the result of fast-moving efforts in Virginia and Maryland to build a network of express toll lanes -- roads on which tolls increase when traffic levels rise to manage demand and prevent jams -- that would parallel nearly every major route in the Washington area. The existing routes would remain free -- and packed.
The vision of a regionwide network of these highways has suddenly come into focus just a year after Virginia and Maryland first showed serious interest in the concept. Maryland plans to begin construction on its first express lanes next year, while Virginia plans to build them on a 14-mile stretch of the Beltway within five years.
The projects, many of which will be built and operated by private firms, represent a radical shift in the way highways are financed and operated and promise to transform the way drivers in the Washington area and the nation travel.
"If you look at the full potential of this for the region, I think it's the biggest thing since Metro," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "These are very significant and could be just the beginning. We haven't had highways of this magnitude in 20 or 30 years."
The shift to the private sector and to express toll roads mirrors efforts across the country to find new ways to pay for roads and manage traffic as congestion in the nation's urban areas increases and the effectiveness of the interstate system, which turns 50 next year, deteriorates.
Texas has launched an ambitious private-sector plan to lay 4,000 miles of new toll roads, while several other states, from Utah to Kansas to Georgia, are considering express toll lanes and other private-sector proposals.
The concept has gained currency as transportation leaders have switched their focus from "solving" gridlock to providing people with options out of it.
"We're creating choices that are not otherwise possible," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "By using variable tolling you can use a market mechanism to keep those lanes relatively congestion free."
Flanagan and leaders in Virginia also said they don't have any other way to pay for fixes that run into the billions. So it's toll lanes or nothing. "People just need to appreciate the financial challenge of adding a lane on the Beltway in each direction," Flanagan said.
Critics of the concept said express toll lanes set up two classes of travelers: those who can afford to pay their way out of congestion and those who can't.
Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has studied these types of deals, said it is vital to provide rapid bus service on the highways so everyone can benefit. "We don't want it to be the case where if you can pay you get a decent commute and if you can't you're stuck in traffic," Pollard said.
Maryland plans to begin construction of its first express toll lanes, on Interstate 95 north of Baltimore, in the next several months, and the state's plan for the intercounty connector linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties follows the express toll model.
These projects will be paid for and operated by the state, but Flanagan said Maryland would seek private investors for future toll lanes, including those being studied on Interstate 270 and the Beltway.
Maryland and Virginia also recently announced plans to jointly study building express toll lanes on parts of the Beltway that include the Woodrow Wilson and American Legion bridges.
Few states are as aggressive as Virginia in wooing the private sector. The state has signed a $900 million deal with a construction consortium to build high-occupancy toll lanes -- a version of express tolls that allows carpoolers to ride free -- on part of the Beltway, and the state is moving rapidly toward a similar $913 million deal with the same developers to build them on a 56-mile stretch of I-95 and I-395. Both could open by 2010.
At the same time, Virginia is one of the first states to consider leasing existing highway assets, such as the Dulles Toll Road, to private investors who would pay the state a lump sum in exchange for 50 years of toll revenue. State officials announced last week that they are considering four proposals valued at more than $1 billion to operate the Dulles Toll Road, some of which include adding express toll lanes. The state would be free to use that money for whatever it chose, although it probably would go toward a Metrorail line to Dulles International Airport and other projects in the corridor.
The result could be a region filled with roads -- and even sections of roads -- controlled and managed by any number of different companies.
"To our eye it will appear queer," said C. Kenneth Orski, editor of the Innovation Briefs transportation newsletter and an early champion of express toll lanes. But in other countries, "you come to a sign saying this segment of the auto route is being operated by such and such company, and 80 miles later you come to a sign that says this toll road is operated by another company, and it's seamless."
There are concerns, though, that companies with competing interests will lead to confusion for drivers and ever-increasing tolls as firms look to maximize profits.
"There are some very real technological and pricing issues," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. "One of the things the region and commonwealth are looking at is some sort of umbrella or oversight group to make sure all the different pricing serves the public good."
Many of the companies that pioneered deals in Europe and Asia, where express highways are common, are targeting the Washington area.
Michael Kulper, vice president for the Australian firm Transurban, said his company "has taken the view that Virginia really is our primary market focus." The firm is a leader of the Beltway and I-95 projects and is one of the groups vying for control of the Dulles Toll Road.
Kulper said Washington and other cities across the country are ripe for these kinds of highways because of congestion brought on by "20 or 30 years of under-investment."
Almost everything about these new highways will be different from what drivers have grown accustomed to and how roads have been built.
For the past 50 years, highways have grown out of the traditional governmental process. Communities cited needs, political leaders approved projects, and state transportation agencies drew up plans according to well-established guidelines. The money to pay for roads -- and later for maintaining them -- came from taxpayers, largely through a levy on gas.
Privately backed roads will be conceived, designed, built and operated by companies according to their ability to make money, a criterion that may not reflect the most pressing traffic needs.
Users, meanwhile, will have to get used to a whole new kind of toll. Rates will be market-driven and will change every few minutes according to traffic conditions. During rush hour, drivers might need serious money, while they could pay for a midnight ride on the same road with loose change.
Drivers will pay with E-ZPass-style transponders and will never have to slow down to pay tolls. There are several ways to charge drivers who slip onto the lanes without transponders, including photographing their license plates and mailing them bills.
Drivers will be charged in increments, say five or 10 miles at a time. Electronic signs will advertise prices before motorists enter stretches of roads, and users will be able to exit if they're unwilling to pay for the next section of highway.
One complication is that there isn't yet a foolproof way to enforce the roads in Virginia, where carpoolers would travel free and others would have to pay.
Supporters said such things are mere details. The future, they said, will be filled with a traveling experience that will give drivers a chance to escape the daily strain of traffic.
"I could see the day," said Orski, the newsletter editor, "when paying for a congestion-free trip will be really accepted as nothing extraordinary, just as we accept paying more for first-class air travel or for taxicabs instead of buses."