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Virginia looks for a breakthrough on East Coast congestion

Conductor Lisa Walor chats with a VRE rider on the way to Fredericksburg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

While the Metro transit system struggles to find its way and Democrats squabble with Republicans over Maryland’s transportation program, Virginia is on a pretty good roll.

In fact, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) addresses commuter issues, he sounds like a guy stoking up for a reelection bid. That is, if you could run for a second term in Virginia.

“We’ve done everything we promised to do” for Northern Virginia, he told the Commonwealth Transportation Board in early June. He was referring to, among other things, his administration’s plan to “Transform 66,” the interstate where so many of his constituents spend precious hours.

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By next summer, the Virginia Department of Transportation plans to change the experience of commuting inside the Capital Beltway by turning on system of high-occupancy toll lanes at rush hours and launching a set of programs that will make it easier for commuters to leave their cars behind before they reach those toll gantries.

This year, the commonwealth plans to pick a private partner to help rebuild I-66 outside the Beltway, set up HOT lanes and provide those out-of-the-car experiences, like commuter buses.

But wait, says the governor. There’s more.

The administration is hoping to hear this coming week that it has won a federal grant for as much as $200 million to complete the financial package for a set of projects called Atlantic Gateway.

The entire program wraps in a lot more state and private money for a total of about $1.4 billion to ease trips for drivers, transit users and rail passengers as well as improve rail freight in the congested area near the nation’s capital.

The whole is greater than the sum of those parts, said Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. The program, he said, is a potential breakthrough for travel on the East Coast. (Hence, the sweeping title of Atlantic Gateway, because it would ease all sorts of travel through one of the worst north-south bottlenecks along the coast.)

A portion of the program would help lay the groundwork for high-speed rail through the Southeast by allowing Virginia to acquire CSX’s S Line, an abandoned rail route between Petersburg and the North Carolina border.

But I think the parts that will get the most attention from Northern Virginians involve rail improvements closer to the District and a southern extension of the 95 Express Lanes to Fredericksburg.

Many travelers on this holiday weekend will struggle through the point in Stafford County where the express lanes merge with the regular lanes on I-95. The state government plans to ease that merge by building an extension of about two miles. But that plan could be superseded if the deal for the 10-mile extension to Fredericksburg comes together.

Layne thinks of that southern extension of the high-occupancy toll lanes in combination with the planned northern extension up
I-395 inside the Beltway to the area around the Pentagon.

“There’s going to be additional tolling capacity so that revenue can continue to stay for improvements in the corridor,” he said.

Tolling never sounds attractive to commuters. It has a better ring among transportation planners when they know a portion of the toll revenue will support programs, such as park-and-rides or commuter buses, that can reduce the number of solo drivers.

Also aimed at reducing the overwhelming percentage of commuters who drive alone: beginning to fix the Long Bridge, the aging span that takes trains across the Potomac River; adding a fourth track to the line between the Potomac and Alexandria; and adding a third track for about eight miles between the Franconia-Springfield VRE station and the Occoquan River.

It’s a huge program, with many pieces that on their own amount to ambitious undertakings, so it’s way too early to call it a winner. But in the D.C. region, Virginia is leading the way on transportation.

Why? The McAuliffe administration’s transportation plan enhances many modes of travel rather than focusing on one beneficiary. It continues an aggressive approach to transportation improvements that spans several administrations. Leaders in the administration and the General Assembly — in both parties — have shown a willingness to negotiate and compromise. They are open to enlisting private partners to cut the taxpayer investment.

It’s a fragile formula, but it’s working.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or ­email