Julie Coons is president and chief executive of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
The Washington area has some of the worst traffic in the nation. Washingtonians spend an average of 2.5 days a year looking at red tail lights. That congestion creates more problems – more pollution, more wasted time, more accidents, more frustration. Every daily commuter knows we cannot leave on the table any ideas for easing congestion.
Northern Virginia Chamber has long supported a balanced regional approach to our transportation needs, including providing commuters with reliable options made possible by public-private partnerships. Despite what critics say, including in the Oct. 14 Local Opinions essay “A poor plan for public-private partnership toll roads in Md.,” Northern Virginia’s experience with managed lanes was and is an enormous success. Maryland’s plan to follow in the footsteps of Northern Virginia’s successful venture shows it wants to address the region’s traffic problem with serious, long-term solutions.
Northern Virginia started its work with public-private partnerships — specifically, the Interstate 495 Express Lanes — in what turned out to be a desperate period. The Express Lanes were advanced just months before the global financial crisis hit in 2008. As markets tanked and the unemployment rate in the metro area rocketed past 10 percent, Express Lanes traffic lagged far behind projections. Yet, Virginia’s taxpayers didn’t bear the brunt of the shortfall. Transurban, which manages the toll lanes, did. Given its commitment to the long-term viability of the project, Transurban infused more than $280 million of equity into the 495 Express Lanes, ensuring continued operations.
That was just the start of what has turned into a very good deal for Northern Virginia. Thanks to its work with Transurban, Virginia has parlayed an initial $409 million direct investment into a $2 billion infrastructure upgrade.
The state also benefited from a public-private partnership on the Interstate 95 Express Lanes. There, Virginia had to invest only $82.6 million for a $900 million project that includes more than $8 billion more in maintenance and operations of the roadway over the next six decades.
Taken together, these projects have added 50 percent more capacity to our roads and replaced $260 million of aging infrastructure on the Capital Beltway. Moreover, the increased investment in the projects themselves allows the construction of roadways designed to handle future congestion while featuring the latest technology to ensure safe, reliable and efficient trips.
The region’s business community is committed to finding ways to make commutes more efficient and predictable. Express lanes are key to that effort. On an average weekday, the 495 and 95 Express Lanes move nearly 78,000 paying customers, 33,000 carpool trips and 800 bus trips. A typical rush-hour driver on the 495 Express Lanes can save between 26 minutes and 64 minutes on I-95. Thanks to these drivers moving off the free lanes, non-paying travelers are experiencing a 6.7 percent reduction in travel time on I-495 and 14.1 percent reduction on I-95.
The Express Lanes are, critically, a reliable option when people need it. More than 50 percent of Washington-area drivers say they have used the 495 and 95 Express Lanes at least once and 70 percent think the Express Lanes benefit the region, according to a survey of more than 1,700 drivers in the Washington region. Employees and employers alike rely on the express lanes, as upward of one-quarter of all accounts are covered by employers.
As government spending on transportation is constrained, the public-private partnership model used by Virginia is providing significant infrastructure upgrades that would not have been possible with traditional funding models. Because Virginia’s experience with public-private partnerships has been overwhelmingly positive, Maryland — and, indeed, states across the country — should want to follow this model. Maryland should consider Virginia’s example a success story because it is a success story.
Virginians and Marylanders both benefit when the region is thriving, and better integration between our states makes our economy stronger; it makes our weekdays more productive and our weekends more fun. So we’re rooting for Maryland. We want the state to move forward with its Express Lanes plan. It is the key to addressing the daily challenges on the American Legion Bridge and beyond and to ensure business in Virginia, Maryland and across our region is not stifled by crippling traffic congestion.