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Gov. McAuliffe inaugurates 95 Express Lanes

<a href="">Click here</a> to visit the page on the 95 Express Lanes Web site where you can download a pdf of the northbound and southbound access points. (Transurban map)
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The 95 Express Lanes project is set to open this weekend, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Wednesday at a ceremony celebrating the end of two and a half years of construction on one of the nation’s biggest road programs.

While the lanes will be free when they open Sunday evening, they are part of a relatively young transportation network based on offering quicker, more reliable travel to drivers willing to pay tolls, collected electronically through transponders, that vary with the level of traffic in the lanes. For those drivers, the free ride will end Dec. 29 when toll collection begins. Drivers who meet carpool requirements can continue to travel free, as long as they carry a specialized transponder that can be set to indicate a carpool.

As is true on the Beltway version, there will be no upper limit on tolls for the 95 Express Lanes. But officials with Transurban, the company that operates both sets of lanes, said they expect the range to be 20 cents to 80 cents per mile, with an average trip costing $6 to $8 since many drivers won’t go the full 29 miles in the I-95 lanes.

The tolling system isn’t the only major innovation in the D.C. region’s transportation system. The express lanes are the product of a partnership between the Virginia government and a private consortium. The private partners cover most of the construction and operating costs in exchange for the right to collect tolls under a 76-year lease. The total project cost is about $925 million, of which the private partners covered $854 million.

“We are the model in the country” for such public-private partnerships to expand the transportation system, McAuliffe said. He was joined at the ceremony by two of the three former governors who played key roles in advancing the project. The plan for the high occupancy toll lanes, commonly known as HOT lanes, was conceived during the gubernatorial term of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D).

“I’m not sure whether that warrants a naming opportunity,” Warner joked with the crowd of several hundred who attended the ceremony at the express lanes headquarters off I-395 just north of the Beltway.

Like Warner, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D) also had experience while governor with the political and financial pressures that precede such opening ceremonies. Kaine’s administration had to temporarily suspend planning for the I-95 HOT lanes during the recession.

He praised the role that public-private partnerships can play, calling them “part of the solution” for transportation improvements. But he also said that they can’t meet the entire need, much of which involves the maintenance of the travel network that’s been built. To cover that very expensive bill, he looks for congressional action replenish the nation’s dwindling transportation trust fund.

Those former governors, plus former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), whose administration launched the construction of the 95 Express Lanes, would meet the “cathedral test” described by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. During the ceremony, he referred to medieval cathedrals that might take more than a century to build.

Those workers setting the first stones in place wouldn’t live to see the finished product, “But they knew that if they didn’t put that stone in place, the cathedral wouldn’t get done.” Leaders, such as Virginia’s one-term governors, must be prepared to advance big transportation projects even if they won’t be in office to cut the ribbons.

Outside of such inaugural ceremonies, toll roads don’t receive the praise showered on medieval cathedrals. Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic described the concern of many drivers that HOT lanes would create a class-system among highway users: “The rich will roll and the poor will poke.”

But, he said, “What we have seen is that everyone is benefiting.” The Beltway project added four lanes in the middle of the highway. The I-95 project adds a third lane to today’s HOV system, and it tacks on nine new miles of travel lanes at the south end of a highway segment used by 200,000 people a day.

Some drivers will shift to the toll lanes on days when they need a quicker trip, but such choices also can help ease congestion in the regular travel lanes, which remain free.