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HOT Lanes on I-95?

Proposal would add a lane and convert HOV lanes to HOT lanes

A stretch of I-95 starting in Springfield may be next in line to get High-Occupancy Toll lanes.

A group of contractors has asked the Virginia Department of Transportation to let it build HOT lanes — where carpoolers would ride free and single drivers would pay a sliding toll — between the Springfield Interchange and Route 17 in Stafford County.

The proposal comes after Fluor Daniel, another contractor, submitted a similar bid to put HOT lanes on the Beltway. That proposal has been enthusiastically received by some local officials, but has also drawn criticism from environmental groups.

"There must be some money to be made" with HOT lanes, noted Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee).

HOT lanes have become popular with local officials in the past year. Local office holders and transportation planners have hailed them as a cheap way to relieve congestion on highways. Besides the Beltway proposal, transportation advocates have floated the idea of creating a network of HOT lanes all over Fairfax County.

THE SPRINGFIELD PROPOSAL, submitted by a group of contractors including Wilbur Smith Associates, Clark Construction, English Construction and Dewberry Davis, would convert the two existing HOV lanes on I-95 into three HOT lanes, free to buses and cars carrying three people, while charging all other drivers a toll. The three lanes would narrow to two after Aquia in Stafford County

Jimmy Mills, special design leader for Wilbur Smith, said that enough room exists to put another lane in the highway median because the road was originally designed to handle three HOV lanes.

"That allows us to increase the capacity that's absolutely needed in order to make it work during peak times," he said.

That in turn would relieve congestion on the main lanes, as more single drivers would be willing to pay a toll to use the HOT lanes, he said.

"I don't think that this by itself will address the total need. But certainly it will help the fringe period, and we do know that growth is occurring south of Fairfax into Prince William and Stafford counties," said Tom Farley, VDOT's Northern Virginia administrator.

COSTS FOR the project would be between $400 and $450 million and be completed by 2008 or 2009, said Mills. Profits from the tolls would go to pay construction, which means that no VDOT money would be used, said Mills. But, he added, "the DOT will be expected to maintain the road as they do today."

By contrast, Fluor Daniel's Beltway proposal would require about $91 million in public financing, at a time when VDOT has little money to spare.

Farley said the financing plan for the I-95 project required more study to ensure it was feasible. "We're not sure about the financial part," he said.

The design of the proposed project may prove controversial with some environmental groups, who have already opposed the Beltway project. Kim Novick, conservation organizer with the Sierra Club, said the group has not yet looked at the detail of the I-95 proposal but also that it would not support creating any new lanes.

"We support looking at conversion of HOV lanes to HOT lanes, but right now we don't see a need to add any more lanes," she said.

ONE OF THE most crucial features of the proposal, according to Kauffman, is that it include the so-called "Phase 8" of the Mixing Bowl project, which connects the HOV or HOT lanes on I-95 to similar lanes planned on the Beltway, allowing carpools to merge from one highway to the other without stalling at a ramp.

"Without the connection I think it just reintroduces confusion to the Mixing Bowl," said Kauffman.

The Phase 8 connection, he said, "adds a critical missing link."

Otherwise, "it's kind of like saying I'm going to water the yard, but I'm never going to attach the hose to the spigot," said Kauffman.

"Phase 8 will be one of the first things we build," said Mills. "It saves that congestion you get right at the moment at those ramps."

A direct connection for carpools and express buses between the two highways could considerably reduce the commute for people who live along 95 and work in Tysons Corner, said Kauffman. "Unless you're adding viable transit, [road] widening is merely buying time."

LIKE THE BELTWAY proposal, the I-95 proposal was submitted under Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA). Under the terms of the act, contractors can approach VDOT with unsolicited bids. The state then advertises the bid and invites other contractors to submit rival bids over a four-month period. Farley said VDOT has received no competing bids yet.

If the state signs a contract for I-95 HOT lanes, the private contractor will assume any cost overruns and guarantee to deliver the project on time.

Kauffman said he saw "great potential in PPTA projects." But, he added, "what gives me great pause is the take-it-or-leave-it nature of the existing process."

Public/private partnerships could make it impossible for local officials to negotiate with contractors and get the best price for a project, he said.