A plan to expand the 495 Express Lanes to the American Legion Bridge will add three miles to Virginia’s system of high-occupancy toll lanes — and provide a critical link to the region’s growing toll network.

The proposed highway widening would complete the last leg of a tolling system on Northern Virginia’s portion of the Capital Beltway and connect to Maryland’s proposed toll lanes for its side of the Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

“Now with Maryland talking about [toll lanes on] their side of the river and doing something in that stretch, there is more incentive for us to move forward with this project,” said Susan Shaw, director of Megaprojects for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

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“For us, it is completing that network and offering people a choice,” Shaw said “There’s no way we could build as many lanes as the traffic would want, but we are trying to give people who carpool or pay a chance to have a reliable trip.”

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Supporters say the proposed highway expansion near the Maryland border will increase capacity at one of the region’s worst traffic choke points. Critics say the money should instead be used on transit projects; they also argue that tolls are just another regressive tax.

Virginia is on pace to create a network of 90 miles of HOT lanes by 2022; major additions are already under construction, including an eight-mile stretch of express lanes on Interstate 395 and another 22 miles on Interstate 66 outside the Beltway. On the Interstate 95 corridor, planners are developing 10 more miles of express lanes to extend to Fredericksburg. If built as anticipated within the next five years, the 495 Express Lanes extension would grow the network to 93 miles.

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The 495 Express Lanes stretch 14 miles from the Dulles Toll Road to the Springfield interchange where it connects with the 95 Express Lanes. The latest proposal would add express lanes from the Dulles Toll Road interchange to the American Legion Bridge.

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Four additional lanes — two in each direction — would be built and tolled; the existing lanes would remain free. The project could require the acquisition of nearby property in tight areas where there is not enough room to expand.

In April, the Virginia Department of Transportation secured $6 million to conduct an environmental study, determine the cost and identify financing for the project, right-of-way impacts, and potential entry and exit points for the lanes. The study is expected to be completed next year, with the potential to move forward with construction as soon as it is finished, state officials said.

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There are as many as 240,000 daily crossings on the American Legion Bridge, where congestion is the worst, according to VDOT. Traffic backups routinely extend from the bridge in Maryland to Tysons in Northern Virginia — even outside rush hours. Virginia officials say the problem is regional and requires a regional solution, which is why they say they are coordinating with Maryland to ensure relief is planned on both sides of the Potomac. They also want to ensure the Virginia project is compatible with whatever Maryland builds.

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“Who builds what is still out there?” Shaw said. “But everybody agrees that this will be way better if we both have a project that matches up exactly to really do something that will address the bottleneck in the middle.”

Maryland’s $9 billion plan is still in the early planning stage. It would create a variable toll system on that state’s side of the Beltway, I-270 and the B-W Parkway. However, it does not include HOT lanes, which allow carpoolers to use the lanes free. If Virginia extends its HOT lanes to the Maryland line, Shaw said officials will have to figure out a way to compensate for carpoolers who ride free in Virginia but may be required to pay upon entering Maryland.

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In Northern Virginia, about 55 miles of HOT lanes have opened since 2011 on Interstates 495, 95 and 66. The most recent addition — 10 miles of rush-hour, peak-direction toll lanes on I-66 inside the Beltway — has made Virginia a national case study for toll systems. It also has yielded some of the highest tolls in the country.

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Since the 66 Express Lanes opened in December, tolls have topped $47 one way, eliciting anger from some drivers who say the lanes are too expensive, but praise from carpoolers who use the lanes free and say they now have a more reliable commute.

State officials say the congestion-based pricing system — tolls fluctuate based on demand — has been successful in changing commuting behavior by encouraging carpooling and transit use, thus reducing the number of cars on the road. The tolls also generate money for road maintenance and other transportation projects.

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Pat Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, said Virginia is becoming a national leader in tolling, adopting new technologies as it tries to address some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

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“The bigger motivation for the state is the congestion management,” he said. “It’s trying to break the gridlock that exists during the rush hour.”

Thirty-five states allow tolling — that includes 130 toll operators for 336 tolling facilities, according to the IBTTA, which represents the industry. Most of the growth in recent years has been in congestion-based pricing, such as the 66 Express Lanes, where tolls change according to demand and volume of traffic to maintain an average speed of 55 mph.

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Virginia has 31 miles of express lanes under construction, 10 miles in development, plus the proposed three miles for 495 to the American Legion Bridge under study.

The largest is a $2.3 billion project to add HOT lanes to I-66 outside the Beltway. Crews are preparing the ground for major construction, which includes the addition of two toll lanes in each direction, new and expanded transit service and a multiuse trail. That expansion spans 22.5 miles from the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County to University Boulevard in Gainesville in Prince William County.

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On I-395, construction is moving forward on a $480 million project where two existing HOV lanes are being converted into three reversible HOT lanes. The 395 Express Lanes will essentially amount to an extension of the 95 Express Lanes, and are slated to open next year.

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And work began last week on construction of an additional eastbound lane on I-66 between the Dulles Connector Road and Fairfax Drive — a part of the 66 Express Lanes project inside the Beltway. The new lane will extend for four miles and is intended to relieve congestion. Construction is scheduled to be completed in fall 2020.

Officials say if the 495 study goes well, construction could start as soon as 2020. Virginia considered building the lanes during the early planning of the original $2 billion 495 Express Lanes project. But cost and uncertainty about improvements on the bridge and in Maryland led officials to leave them out.

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So far, communities in the area have expressed support for the project, citing growing concerns about spillover traffic from worsening Beltway congestion.

“It’s really clogged up the local roadways, and people who live in that area know what a traffic nightmare it is,” said David Wuehrmann, who chairs the McLean Citizens Association’s transportation committee. “We are not really focused on the toll lanes as much as simply adding lanes. We support anything that is going to add extra capacity.”

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