A groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning marked the beginning of the end for the I-95 HOV lanes, long a mainstay of the D.C. region’s commuting system.

But scores of local government and state officials, including Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) who attended the ceremony at the Dale City rest area off the southbound lanes cheered the upcoming conversion to high-occupancy toll lanes as the way of the future for commuters.

The 29 miles of HOT lanes on I-95 will connect to the 14 miles of HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway, scheduled to open late this year, creating a major new element in the regional highway system.

I-95 drivers this week will see the beginnings of tree and brush removal in the new work zone. The HOV lanes will be open during rush hours throughout the construction.

As the HOT lane system expands, McDonnell also looked forward to the expansion of the type of public-private partnership that is bringing it about.

Most of the cost of the nearly $1 billion project will be borne by the private partnership, a joint venture between Transurban DRIVe and Fluor Enterprises Inc., in a deal that is similar to the one struck for the new Beltway lanes. The private partners recoup their investment by tolling the lanes over the course of a long-term lease.

Mahlon G. (Lon) Anderson, the managing director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said his organization had been reluctant to endorse the HOT lanes concept but was now supportive.

In fact, he characterized the Virginia effort as “the beginning of the end of our being number 1, 2 or 3 in traffic congestion,” a reference to the D.C. region’s status in the widely quoted surveys of urban areas conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute.

“TTI will have to find another whipping boy,” Anderson said.

AAA’s slow embrace of this concept for building and operating highways stems from concerns about whether they will become what many commuters despise: “Lexus lanes,” offering a quick and reliable commute to those well off enough to pay a high toll at peak periods, while other drivers crawl along in the regular lanes.

As Anderson frames that scenario: “The rich will ride and the poor will poke.”

Advocates for the new lanes, who include both Republicans and Democrats in Virginia, note that carpools and buses are entitled to use the lanes for free. They also say that new bus routes will emerge to transport commuters in the express lanes and reduce the number of drivers in the regular lanes.

Many, including the governor and Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton, also say that teaming up with private partners is a way for governments to leverage the scarce public resources available for transportation projects.

The project

The I-95 Express Lanes, as the project is officially known, will run for 29 miles between Garrisonville Road in Stafford County and Edsall Road, just north of the Beltway.

Part of the route covers the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes between Dumfries and Edsall Road, but the lanes will be extended south to Garrisonville Road.

The northern portion of the project, the 14 miles between the Prince William Parkway and the Edsall Road area near the beginning of I-395, will go from two to three lanes. Cutting off the HOT lanes project at that point was a decision the McDonnell administration made after Arlington County filed a lawsuit challenging the original plan to provide HOT lanes all the way north to the the approaches to the 14th Street Bridge at the Potomac River.

The project will add some park-and-ride lots and expand others for those who want to carpool.

The I-95 HOT lanes will connect with the Beltway HOT lanes in Springfield. The operations would be similar. Drivers who don’t meet the carpool requirements would be charged a variable toll, depending on the level of congestion. But the I-95 proposal has generated much more debate than the Beltway route.

The Beltway program involves construction of four new lanes. The I-95 plan replaces the HOV lanes for the length of the project.

Those are among the most successful HOV lanes in the nation, thanks in good measure to the informal system of carpooling known as slugging. Even though three carpoolers would still ride for free, many slugs think that allowing solo drivers to use the express lanes for a fee will undermine the incentive that makes slugging successful.