In July 2002, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors rejected proposals to widen the Beltway. But on Monday, the board lent its support to a plan that would add two High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to the Beltway in each direction.
In a letter to Virginia Transportation Secretary Whittington Clement, the board said the project would improve "the mainline capacity while minimizing the impacts to the citizens."
Board members said they opposed last year's plan because it would have caused more than 300 homes to be demolished while the current proposal doesn't foresee tearing down more than six homes.
It also doesn't hurt that the current proposal does not call for any investment from Fairfax County.
"I think HOT lanes have enormous potential but the devil's in the details," said Supervisor Gerald Connolly (D-Providence), who will take over as board chairman next month. He said the question of preserving homes was "key."
Under the plan, buses and cars carrying three people or more could use the HOT lanes for free while all other passenger cars would have to pay a sliding toll. The extra lanes would run from the Georgetown Pike to a point just west of the Springfield Interchange, a distance of about 12 miles.
The idea was put forward by engineering firm Fluor Daniel as a public private partnership meaning that the company would finance most of the lanes' construction and collect the toll revenue.
THE BOARD'S LETTER which was signed by outgoing Chairman Kate Hanley (D), also asked that the project be expanded to link the Franconia-Springfield Metro station to Tysons Corner by express buses running on the new lanes. Interchanges between the Beltway and Route 123 and between the Beltway and I-66 should be improved as well to handle the new traffic safely, the letter said.
But any expansion of the project beyond what Fluor has proposed would have to be funded entirely by VDOT, an unlikely prospect.
Right now, Fluor's project would only provide a direct connection to the HOT lanes at I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road, said Gary Groat, Fluor's director of project development. Elsewhere, drivers would have to merge through four lanes of traffic to get to the HOT lanes in the road's median.
Solo drivers who want to use the HOT lanes would have to buy a transponder to pay the toll. There will be no toll booths, Groat said.
Groat said Fluor would build improvements to 12 of the 59 ramps on the 12-mile stretch of the Beltway. Most of the existing ramps and feeder roads are adequate to handle the increase in traffic, he said.
"It's not the interchanges," he said. "The project is the mainline."
Young Ho Chang, Fairfax County's transportation director agreed.
"The roads will work better because people won't be cutting through the local roads," he said.
Groat said Fluor would finance 87 percent of the $693.4 million project, which would be repaid through toll revenue. That means VDOT will have to come up with 13 percent of the construction cost, roughly $91 million. Fairfax County would not have to contribute any funds towards construction.
The company would also guarantee that, if approved, the project would be finished by 2009 and would not exceed budget.
But Fluor won't pay for maintaining or policing the HOT lanes once they are built. Also, any transit system run on the HOT lanes would have to be paid for by the public sector.
BOARD MEMBERS said they weren't trying to weigh the project down with their additional demands.
"What we're not doing here is loading it down," said Connolly.
"This board is not in the position of [using] locally generated funds to pay for those things," said Hanley.
If the project is approved, Groat said, Fluor will study its revenue projections to see if it can lower the public contribution to the project or expand on the current proposal.
If the tolls generate more money than anticipated "then obviously you might have a little room to make enhancements," he said.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board is set to make a decision next year on whether or not to proceed with the Fluor proposal. If the CTB moves forward, VDOT officials will negotiate a final agreement with the company. The state Secretary of Transportation then has to sign off on the final agreement before construction can begin.
The board's endorsement Monday provides a vote of confidence from local officials which could sway CTB members to green light the proposal.
Members of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which have criticized the proposal as environmentally unfriendly, reacted with disappointment after the board's vote.
Kim Novick, a conservation organizer with the group, said the proposal has been "fast tracked through the approval process."
Adding more lanes to the Beltway will not reduce congestion but will worsen the region's already severe air pollution problem, Novick said. The Sierra Club would rather see existing lanes on the Beltway converted into HOT lanes.