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Virginia panel okays I-66 HOT lanes inside Beltway

The chart shows estimates on where people using I-66 eastbound inside the Beltway will be traveling to in 2040. (VDOT image)

The Commonwealth Transportation Board, Virginia’s policy-making panel on transportation projects, voted Wednesday to approve the creation of HOT lanes on Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway.

The board also accepted a deal with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission that gives the commission control over distributing toll revenue for programs, such as carpooling and commuter buses, that are designed to help commuters leave their cars behind and avoid the tolls before getting on I-66.

The state government’s plan is to convert today’s rush-hour High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes in the middle of 2017. The construction work — basically a matter of setting up tolling gantries and their support system — is simple compared to the politics behind it.

While Northern Virginia has an extensive HOT lanes network on I-95 and part of the Capital Beltway, the I-66 system inside the Beltway will be different. For the first time, the Virginia Department of Transportation plans to set up HOT lanes without first adding lane capacity.

The HOT lanes will add capacity, moving 40,000 more people per day by 2040 in the state’s estimate. But at least at first, that extra capacity will be provided by managing traffic through the variable toll and by using the toll revenue to provide more of those out-of-the-car options. For solo divers who choose to pay the toll during the four peak hours eastbound in the morning and westbound in the afternoon, the Virginia Department of Transportation estimates the average toll at $6 each way.

The plan approved unanimously by the board will face a challenge in the Virginia General Assembly in January. House Del. James M. LeMunyon, a Republican whose district includes parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, has introduced House Bill 1, which if approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a proponent of the VDOT plan, would prohibit tolls on existing lanes of I-66 inside the Beltway.

I-66 inside the Beltway may well be the most fought-over 10 miles of interstate in the nation. For decades, communities, commuters and governments fought over whether it should exist, whether carpool rules should apply and how tough the carpool rules should be. The battles typically pit long-distance commuters from the outer suburbs, such as western Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, against the people of Arlington County who live along the interstate.

Now, opponents like LeMunyon want I-66 widened inside the Beltway immediately. Under the state’s HOT lanes plan, tolling and the leave-the-car behind program would start first, then the state would study the impact on I-66 and on parallel routes that might get spillover traffic from those avoiding tolls. If conditions on I-66 or the other routes deteriorated beyond certain points, VDOT would widen four miles on the eastbound side of I-66 as far as Ballston, tapping the toll revenues to finance the widening.

While widening is a key issue for many opponents, it’s far from the only one.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne pointed out before the vote that the state has made several important changes in its plan as a result of consultations with Northern Virginia communities throughout 2015. Originally, the HOV2 two-person carpool standard was going to be toughened to HOV3 when tolling began. Now, the state plans to take that regionally agreed to step in 2020, around the time it expects the I-66 HOT lanes outside the Beltway to be completed. Also, the state’s plan had called for the tolling of drivers traveling in the reverse direction at rush hour, which would be westbound in the morning and eastbound in the afternoon. But this fall, the state dropped the plan for reverse tolling.

Still, there are many unhappy people. They include drivers of hybrid cars who were granted temporary exemptions to use the I-66 HOV lanes, even though they weren’t carpooling. Unless they pick up a passenger, they will be subject to tolling, as they are in the other Northern Virginia HOT lanes. Residents of Arlington County, where the HOT lanes would replace the HOV lanes, are concerned that some of today’s I-66 motorists — such as the hybrid drivers — will decide to bail out of the interstate and take non-toll routes through their neighborhoods.

“If I were trying to clog all the roads inside the Beltway, I’d put tolls on I-66,” Ron Wilcox, organizer of the Coalition for FREEways, told members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board at the board’s Tuesday night hearing on I-66. “This is a transportation problem you’re creating, not a solution.”

Many of those who support the state’s plan do so with reservations and conditions. Some are uncomfortable with giving the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission a key role in deciding how to distribute the toll revenue. Some would either toughen up or ease the measures that would trigger the widening project.

A common quote among supporters who spoke at VDOT or Commonwealth Transportation Board hearings this year expressed this qualified backing: “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” they told each other.

Before the vote, Layne noted that some opponents have called for the state to either delay the plan or flat-out abandon it. Layne has maintained that the state plan is a practical approach to the difficult engineering and political challenges faced by those who want to move more people through one of the nation’s most congested corridors.

“We’re going to start over and do what?” Layne challenged the opponents. “It’s great to tell the public you’ve got a better plan. It would be great to say you have one you can implement.”

The vote on the inside the Beltway plan highlighted the board’s two days of meetings in Alexandria. But there were other significant developments.

VDOT revealed that it has decided to seek a private concessionaire to build and operate the HOT lanes system planned for the outside the Beltway portion of the I-66 program. Layne said he was pleased with the responses that private groups made to the state’s terms for a deal, but that he wants to keep open the option to go with traditional state financing and operation until a contract is signed, probably late in 2016.

The private concessionaire approach is similar to the one that produced the 495 and 95 Express Lanes, in which the private group agrees to take on most of the expense and risk of building and operating the lanes in exchange for decades of toll revenue.

VDOT also unveiled the results of study that scored Northern Virginia transportation projects under the congestion-relief measures contained in House Bill 599, legislation sponsored by LeMunyon that became law in 2012. It’s one of several recent laws in which the General Assembly sought to make the decisions on transportation projects more rational and perhaps less political.

The study looked at the projects’ anticipated impact by 2040. The top ranking project was the outside-the-Beltway portion of the state’s I-66 project, which would create two HOT lanes and three regular lanes in each direction between the Beltway and Haymarket. On a scale of zero to 100, it got a score of 80.4. The inside-the-Beltway HOT lanes project was in the middle of the pack, with a score of 31.5. The lowest ranking in the group — with a score of 9.0 — was a straightforward widening of the interstate for the four miles between the Dulles Connector Road and Ballston, a project that VDOT estimates would cost $100 million.

The state’s inside the Beltway plan is “self-financing,” Layne said, meaning it is based on use of the toll revenue. The study assumes that, by 2040, traffic conditions would have triggered the widening, something Layne said he fully expects. The traffic management system that variable tolling creates, plus the leave-the-car-beyond programs, largely account for the higher score on the state’s plan.
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