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Northern Virginia toll road operator Transurban to sell half its stake in lanes

The Australian company, which operates the express lanes in Northern Virginia, said the deal will ensure its expansion in the Washington region and beyond

The Interstate 395 southbound HOT (high-occupancy/toll) lanes near Duke Street in Alexandria. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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Toll road operator Transurban announced a deal Wednesday to sell half its U.S. toll roads, all of which are in Northern Virginia.

The Australian company said it is bringing in three investment partners as part of a strategy to boost its finances and better position itself to pursue new projects.

“This new partnership really put us in an even stronger position to be able to support the economic recovery and play a role in helping to meet transportation needs in the region,” said Jennifer Aument, president of Transurban’s North America operations. “It’s about filling our coffers.”

Australian investors AustralianSuper and UniSuper and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board will acquire half the interest in the Virginia express lane assets in a $2.1 billion deal, Transurban said. Transurban is on a short list of those bidding for billions of dollars in state contracts to build toll lanes on the Beltway and Interstate 270 in Maryland.

Transurban operates more than 50 miles of express lanes on interstates 95 and 395, as well as the Capital Beltway. It is extending Virginia’s express toll lanes on I-95 south to Fredericksburg and north on the Beltway to the Maryland border.

The partnership was announced two months after Transurban chief executive Scott Charlton told shareholders the company planned to sell stakes of the U.S. toll operations to free up capital to pursue other projects in the United States.

Transurban will continue to manage the express lanes, company officials said.

People are driving less and skipping the toll roads, leaving less money for local projects

The company has a 75-year concession with Virginia to operate the express lanes and collect toll revenue. Under the contract with the state, Virginia has to approve any co-investors. Aument said Transurban began the process on Wednesday to seek state approval. The deal is expected to close next year.

The Virginia Department of Transportation said it is conducting its review and consent process of the sale.

“We have a commitment from the Transurban leadership that the company’s role as an express lanes operator will continue, and there will be no impact to day-to-day operations, nor to the underlying concession agreement,” VDOT said in a statement.

Transurban operates one of the first and largest networks of dynamic, high-occupancy toll lanes in the United States. The company’s presence in the Washington area has grown significantly since it opened the 495 Express Lanes in 2012 — the first 14 miles of a growing network that connects to the 95 Express Lanes and the 395 Express Lanes.

Across the three projects is an investment of $4 billion in infrastructure, the company said. It is focused on extending its footing in the state and getting its variable toll system across the Potomac River, where Maryland is selecting a private partner to expand highways and add toll lanes to the Beltway and I-270.

“We’re glad to see Maryland moving forward with this network. It is an opportunity to deliver what has happened in Virginia, where you’ve seen congestion relief and improved travel time in both the express lanes and the regular lanes. We’ve seen the expansion of carpooling and transit,” Aument said. “We hope to have an opportunity to work with them.”

Possible legal challenges pose cost risks for Maryland toll lanes proposal

Company officials said in October that they had been planning to bring in financial partners for more than a year, adding that the sale of half its stake was not prompted by losses during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Northern Virginia operations were severely affected by changes in traffic patterns during the pandemic — more so than Transurban’s operations in Australia and Montreal. Traffic on the 95, 395 and 495 Express Lanes hit a low in April, when it was down 80 percent, according to a Transurban trading report.

The region is still reporting lower traffic numbers than before the pandemic. Toll road use is down by more than 40 percent on the Beltway and 30 percent along the I-95 corridor, according to the company’s latest report. Company officials said they are optimistic that traffic and revenue on the express lanes will rebound.

“Transportation can play a critical role in that recovery,” she said. “Maryland and Virginia have certainly demonstrated time and time again that they are willing to look at innovative solutions. And we look forward to working with them.”

Transurban described its new partners as “globally recognized for their long-term investment in transportation and infrastructure solutions” who collectively have more than $500 billion under management.