A plan to expand the 495 Express Lanes to the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge would add another 11 miles to Virginia’s system of high-occupancy toll lanes — and provide a critical link to the region’s growing toll network.
This month, the Virginia Department of Transportation launched an environmental study to determine the cost and identify financing for the project, right-of-way impacts, and potential entry and exit points for the lanes. The study is expected to take two years to complete, with the potential to move forward with construction as soon as it is finished.
“We need a system with as many choices as possible,” said Susan Shaw, VDOT’s director of megaprojects, noting that the express lanes in Northern Virginia guarantee users a reliable trip and encourage carpooling and transit use. Vehicles with three or more aboard, including buses, are allowed to ride free.
“We need to have a system where we maximize the person throughput,” Shaw said. “It is about moving people, not moving cars and vehicles. And we feel this has been a great success” on the express lanes along Interstates 95 and 495, she said.
Supporters say the potential highway expansion would increase capacity in a corridor that suffers from significant traffic congestion. But the plan probably will have its critics who say the money should instead be used on improving transit and that the toll rates can be too high for many residents to use.
Northern Virginia has more than 60 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes and is building an additional 35 miles, on pace to create a network of more than 90 miles by the end of 2022. Major additions under construction include 22.5 miles on Interstate 66 outside the Beltway and 10 more miles of express lanes to Fredericksburg on I-95.
The 495 Express Lanes stretch 14 miles from the Dulles Toll Road to the Springfield interchange, where they connect to the I-95 Express Lanes. This latest proposal would add express lanes from the Springfield interchange to Maryland Route 210, just past the state line with a potential connection to Interstate 295.
Virginia transportation officials said the state will coordinate with Maryland as the study focuses on bringing the toll lanes into Prince George’s County. Preliminary data shows the express lanes extension could help ease heavy traffic backups over the bridge and at the Route 210/Interstate 295 interchange in Maryland, Shaw said.
The system would operate similarly to the express lanes in Northern Virginia, which are designed so tolls fluctuate to maintain a minimum average speed of 55 mph. As traffic increases, the toll rises to help manage the number of vehicles entering the roadway. Motorcycles and vehicles carrying three or more people use the lanes free.
Pat Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, said Virginia’s experiment with that system has proved to be successful, saving users time on the road and addressing the region’s traffic congestion problem. The state also is a national leader in tolling, having built its express lanes network along Interstates 95, 395, 495 and 66 over the past decade.
There are nearly 60 “managed lanes” facilities across 11 states totaling nearly 900 miles of toll road, according to the IBTTA. With about 35 miles of express lanes under construction in Virginia, the commonwealth is on track to have 10 percent of the nation’s managed toll lanes as early as next year.
“An expansion of the system opens up new possibilities for time savings and congestion reduction across the rest of the Beltway,” Jones said. “The express lanes have been a great benefit to this region in terms of giving people more choices of how and when to travel, and being able to avoid congestion and providing additional transit options.”
A portion of toll revenue in the Northern Virginia express lanes is spent on corridor improvements and transit operations.
Angel Deem, the environmental manager leading the Southside Express Lanes study at VDOT, said plans are to evaluate whether to build a system with one or two express lanes in each direction along the 11 miles. The study also will consider a “no-build” option.
There is no plan for widening on the Wilson Bridge, which opened in 2008 and was built to include additional space for future transportation needs, including space to bring Metrorail across the Potomac.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation concurrently is launching a study of the corridor to assess transit demand. The study should explore a Metrorail option between Alexandria and Prince George’s County. Metro has circulated a plan to extend the Blue Line into National Harbor.
The transit study should help guide decisions for the corridor, transportation officials said.
As with other toll facilities in Northern Virginia, the state will explore a public-private partnership for the potential extension, Shaw said. The I-495 and I-95 Express Lanes are financed and operated by Australian-based toll operator Transurban through a concession agreement with the state. And the I-66 Express Lanes outside the Beltway are being built through a similar partnership between the state and I-66 Express Mobility Partners, a consortium of investors that will maintain and operate the toll lanes under a 50-year concession.
It is unclear whether Virginia would choose Transurban to build and operate the remaining section of the Beltway. Pierce Coffee, president of Transurban North America, said in a statement that the company is “ready to collaborate with Virginia” as it explores the extension.
“We support the state’s forward-looking approach to study new ways to provide safer, faster and more reliable travel choices for its travelers and believe the development of a seamless network of Express Lanes would be a benefit to the region’s travelers and economy,” Coffee said.
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