Virginia wants to expand its HOT lanes network to include I-66 and I-395, as well as a southern extension of the 95 Express Lanes. (VDOT image)

This week, the Virginia Department of Transportation will hold two public meetings to describe its plans to extend the 95 Express Lanes north along I-395 to the Potomac River. Here’s what you need to know.

Planning
Virginia officials describe the project as an extension of the original public-private partnership that create the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes along 29 miles of I-95, to just north of the Capital Beltway. In November, VDOT signed a preliminary agreement with the consortium that built and operates the 95 Express Lanes, but the state and the private partners are still working on a final deal.

Today’s high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-395 will be converted into HOT lanes. Carpools of at least three people will travel free, as will buses and motorcycles. Drivers who don’t meet the carpool rules will pay a toll that varies to maintain a steady flow of traffic. The exemption that allows some hybrid vehicle drivers to use the HOV lanes will not apply to the HOT lanes.

The two meetings this week will provide the public with information about the project. In the fall, public hearings will be scheduled as part of the federally mandated environmental review for the project.

Meanwhile, VDOT is asking the D.C. region’s Transportation Planning Board to include the project in its long range plan, another crucial step for any transportation plan with regional impact.

VDOT hopes to have a final decision on the federal environmental review by the end of the year, and a final agreement with the private partners in January.

Construction
Construction would begin in spring 2017 and be completed in summer 2019. Basically, the work would make the lanes in the middle of I-395 look like the 95 Express Lanes. The two reversible HOV lanes would be converted to three reversible HOT lanes along a distance of eight miles from the north end of the 95 Express Lanes around Edsall Road to the area around Eads Street near the Pentagon.

VDOT says the project also will include improved links between the express lanes and Eads Street. Drivers complain about congestion in today’s system.

Construction also includes setting up the electronic signs and gantries for the tolling system, as well as an Active Traffic Management system such as drivers now see along I-66. VDOT also is studying sound wall installations along the route.

The work would occur largely within the current right of way for the highway, according to VDOT, but the design work isn’t done.

Operation
The HOT lanes will operate around the clock, seven days a week. They would follow the same reversible-hours schedule as the 95 Express Lanes.

For today’s carpoolers, not much changes. The big impact will be on drivers who use the middle lanes outside of rush hour, when the HOV rules are not in effect. They will need to pay the toll, travel with some passengers, ride a bus or use the regular lanes of I-395.

The toll-paying drivers on the northbound 95 Express Lanes during the morning rush would no longer have to exit back to the regular lanes at the point where the toll lanes end and the HOV lanes begin.

The new HOV ramp at Seminary Road, near the Mark Center, will continue to be an HOV-only ramp, even when drivers who don’t meet the HOV rules have access to the HOT lanes below the ramp.

VDOT says a key difference between the 95 Express Lanes plan and the 395 Express Lanes plan is that a portion of the I-395 toll revenue will go to support programs, such as carpooling and commuter buses, that allow commuters to leave their cars behind. But until the state reaches a deal with the private partners, we won’t know how much toll money will go for this purpose.

This week’s meetings
These sessions are from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., with a VDOT presentation at 7 p.m.

Monday. Wakefield High School cafeteria, 1325 S. Dinwiddie St., Arlington

Wednesday. Francis C. Hammond Middle School, 4646 Seminary Rd., Alexandria