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Virginia might allow big trucks in I-66 HOT lanes outside the Beltway

The HOT lanes program would rebuild I-66 outside the Beltway so that it has three regular lanes and two HOT lanes in each direction. (Karen Bleier/AFP-Getty Images)
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Virginia transportation officials are now open to the possibility that tractor-trailers could use I-66 high-occupancy toll lanes outside the Capital Beltway, which would be a first for Virginia’s HOT lanes.

This potential easing of the traffic rules would not affect the portion of the I-66 HOT lanes scheduled to go into operation next summer inside the Capital Beltway, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said in describing the proposal to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Thursday afternoon.

Virginia is about to request proposals for the construction and operation of the HOT lanes between the Beltway and Gainesville. Layne said the request will offer these potential private partners the option of admitting the big trucks in the HOT lanes.

“It could be a win-win for the commonwealth, the concessionaire and our drivers,” Layne said in an interview. People in the trucking industry are interested in the HOT lanes’ potential to improve travel times, according to the transportation secretary.

The tractor-trailers would pay a much higher toll than other drivers, perhaps three times as much, and that could reduce the toll rate that other drivers would pay, Layne said. Also, it would get at least some big trucks out of the regular lanes on I-66 and make that travel experience better for motorists who aren’t paying tolls.

The tolling system used in HOT lanes is complicated — in fact, it baffles many drivers and some government officials and lawmakers, even though HOT lanes have been operating in Virginia since 2012. When Virginia enlists a private partner to help defray the state’s costs, the private partner saves the state much of the expense of building and operating the system in exchange for the right to collect tolls for decades.

But the toll also varies, sometimes rising to discourage more drivers from using the lanes so that the overall flow of traffic will be quick and reliable. There’s also a federal requirement that travel speeds be maintained when High Occupancy Vehicle lanes — such as those on I-66 — are converted to HOT lanes. Those travel speed requirements would still apply, whether or not big trucks are allowed in the lanes.

Those multiple goals leave some travelers suspicious when they see the tolls rise. They ask me if I think the HOT lanes operator, Transurban, is trying to make money. (My answer is always the same: Of course Transurban is trying to make money on the HOT lanes operation. That was the basis for the private company making the original deal to build and operate the lanes.)

An additional factor in the evolving I-66 financing plan is a state requirement that some of the toll revenue go to support programs, such as carpooling and commuter buses, that allow people to leave their cars behind when making trips on I-66. Having big trucks as a revenue source for the HOT lanes operator might make it easier to meet the commitment to out-of-the-car programs.

The state hopes to select a private partner in the fall for the outside the Beltway project, which would replace the current lane configuration with three regular lanes and two HOT lanes in each direction.