A plan to expand commuter bus service on new Interstate 95 high-occupancy toll lanes in Virginia has been abandoned as the state grapples with a pared-down HOT lane proposal and the anticipated loss of about $200 million in revenue.
The loss of bus service that was estimated to carry 5,000 daily passengers by 2020 comes as Northern Virginia prepares for massive traffic problems when 6,400 defense workers begin to transfer to Alexandria’s Mark Center office complex next month.
Purchase of new buses and additional bus routes had been planned under a private-public partnership to create high-occupancy toll lanes from Stafford County to the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac.
That change in plans altered the financial landscape for Transurban Group, the private company that has joined with the Commonwealth of Virginia to create the lanes.
Before the length of the HOT lanes was truncated, Transurban had committed to pay up to $200 million that Virginia wanted to use for bus service. That money was projected to be raised in revenue by tolling the new lanes inside the Beltway, which would have been created at minimal cost simply by changing the road markings on two existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes to create three HOT lanes.
The rest of the project provides less of a cash bonanza for Transurban. The three HOT lanes, and bridges to accommodate them, from the Beltway south to Stafford County require a massive construction project. Those less heavily traveled miles of I-95 will provide less toll revenue than would have the roadway inside the Beltway.
“A lot of the transit stuff that was on the table is no longer financially viable, given the reduced size of the project,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton.
Connaughton has commissioned a study to identify transit options in Northern Virginia.
“We’re doing a very comprehensive study, and we are committed to funding transit improvements that result from that study,” he said. “It will be done this fall. That will give us plenty of time to get it into the six-year [transportation] plan.”
Connaughton said funding for those transit recommendations would be found while the two-year HOT lane construction project is underway.
The loss of money for new bus routes and the opening of the Mark Center at Seminary Road and I-395 create “a sort of perfect storm of everything going wrong at the same time,” said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
“We’re removing [bus] capacity right in an area where we have this excruciating [Mark Center] issue,” Kirby said. “It was to have been a significant upgrade in bus service. The route schedules already had been set.”
Kirby said the current HOT lane project would be a boon to the Stafford County real estate market because drivers could head north from there on the I-95 HOT lanes and then slide onto Beltway HOT lanes now under construction in Virginia, whisking them to the rapidly expanding Tysons Corner.
“You’ll be able to speed along HOT lanes all the way,” he said. “It's going to create more [highway] to the south, which means creating more sprawl, but there will not be HOT lanes inside the Beltway in the very areas where we’re trying to concentrate development.”
Connaughton said the state has not given up hope that the Defense Department can be persuaded to slow or delay the transfers to the Mark Center, which are expected to start next month and be completed by early next year.
The state has committed $80 million to build a ramp between I-395 and Seminary Road to handle Mark Center traffic, but construction was delayed when the Federal Highway Administration refused to allow the state to bypass environmental requirements.
“All of these improvements will be made after the people move in,” Connaughton said, estimating that the ramp would not be completed until 2014. “We’re extremely worried. Every analysis shows that when the move is complete, it will have a dramatic impact on the traffic in and around Seminary Road and also on I-395.”