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A little caution on I-66 HOT lanes

The 495 Express Lanes transformed the experience of driving on the Beltway in Virginia. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Virginia’s top transportation officials have made no final decisions, but they are showing a lot of interest in putting tolled express lanes in place of the HOV lanes on Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway.

They like two things: Tolling is a widely used method of managing traffic demand. And it’s also a way of paying for megaprojects, either by adding more revenue for the government to spend on highway improvements or by creating an incentive for private companies to do the work for the government in exchange for the toll money.

So far, the evidence that this works out for everybody’s benefit is limited.

The D.C. region’s one set of high-occupancy toll lanes opened on the Capital Beltway in November 2012. Initial toll revenue was below projections made in a study long before the HOT lanes construction began. The study was done before the Great Recession hit the local economy. It may also have reflected an optimism bias on the part of consultants about future traffic volumes and about the willingness of drivers to pay tolls.

The latest report from Transurban, the company that operates the 495 Express Lanes on the Beltway, shows its average tolls and toll revenue are increasing. For the three months ending in June, average daily toll revenue was up 45 percent over the previous quarter, to $90,654. The average toll was up almost 9 percent, to $2.83. The maximum toll charged for a full 14-mile trip was $11.85.

The average number of trips taken on a workday was 43,325, up almost 24 percent compared to the same quarter in 2013.

So the financial picture continues to improve, but will the early track record of under-performance compared to expectations make it more difficult for Virginia to negotiate a favorable deal with private partners on I-66?

A better deal means more travel improvements can be included in the overall package, which Virginia transportation officials estimate could cost $2 billion to $3 billion.

What evidence do we have so far that HOT lanes are good for traffic management?

Charles Kilpatrick, the Virginia’s commissioner of transportation, told me on Thursday that he regards the Beltway HOT lanes as a success because they’ve improved travel for everyone. They’ve opened up an option for drivers to get a reliable trip in exchange for a toll. And they’ve created an incentive to either carpool for a free ride or take a commuter bus.

Traffic also appears to be less congested in the regular lanes, he said. It looks that way to me, too, but our evidence is anecdotal. There’s no traffic study yet.

And if we do wind up with statistical support for an easing of traffic in the regular lanes, what are we make of that? Would it be an endorsement for the HOT lanes as a traffic management concept?

Could a statistical easing of traffic in the regular lanes also be an echo of the recession?

And if the regular lanes’ traffic is easing because of the express lanes construction, is that an endorsement of the HOT lanes concept or simply a reflection of what happens when you add four lanes to any highway?

One of Virginia’s key goals for the Beltway project — as it will be for the I-66 improvement project — is to decrease the number of solo drivers in the corridor by increasing the incentives for carpooling and commuter bus travel.

Here again, we have only preliminary returns. Fairfax and Prince William counties both launched commuter bus services to take advantage of the Beltway express lanes. Virginia began offering a new type of E-ZPass transponder called the Flex to attract the carpool market. In Transurban’s most recent quarterly report, the percentage of vehicles paying tolls — meaning they aren’t a carpool vehicle or a bus or another exempt category such as a motorcycle or emergency vehicle — remains at about 91 percent of all express lanes users. This will probably prove to be a lesson in the need for a more robust system of buses and park/ride lots to support express lanes travel.

These notes of caution are meant to be just that. It’s not an argument against building HOT lanes. I-66 needs a big, well-financed solution, and as Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said Thursday, that’s unlikely to occur without a private partner, one that will need an incentive, like toll revenue, to invest in the project upfront. I hear from many drivers who prefer the Beltway express lanes to the regular lanes. I’m one of them. Based on more than a year of experience with them, I no longer look at the toll prices on the message boards. I want that reliable trip.

But Virginians can and should ask questions and avoid assumptions as the discussion about the I-66 program gets more intense.