In June 2002, Gary Groat wandered into the Virginia Department of Transportation's (VDOT) public hearings on widening the Beltway and listened as speaker after speaker slammed VDOT's proposal. They angrily denounced the plan to destroy over 300 homes to make way for new lanes and said VDOT had not paid close enough attention to public transit.
Groat said that he realized during those meetings last year that the Capital Beltway would be an ideal candidate for high occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes. Groat, director of project development with the construction firm Fluor Daniel, knew about HOT lanes — separate lanes used by car-poolers and single drivers willing to pay a toll — because his company had recently added them to a highway in Orange County, Calif. Fluor Daniel then submitted a proposal to build HOT lanes on the Beltway by 2009. Under the plan, Fluor would oversee the construction of two new lanes in each direction on a 12-mile stretch of the Beltway from the Springfield Interchange to the Georgetown Pike, which would be separated from the general lanes. State transportation officials are reviewing the proposal and will make a decision next year.
Now Groat is faced with the task of selling the HOT lanes concept to an area that recently turned down another Beltway expansion plan. On Tuesday, he took his message to a meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and listened as some citizens and environmental advocates criticized the latest suggestion to relieve congestion on the Beltway. Still he cited a recent Fluor survey and predicted that people in Northern Virginia would welcome HOT lanes.
"Over two-thirds of the people surveyed say this is a good idea," he said.
Groat said Fluor's plan would not require displacing more than a handful of homes and businesses and would provide lanes of traffic where express buses could run. Also, because the project would be built under the Virginia Public Private Partnership Act of 1995, Fluor would guarantee that it would be done on time and on budget. The price tag, Groat said, would come to about $693.4 million, with tolls paying for 87 percent. Local and state governments would have to put in the remaining 13 percent, roughly $90.1 million.
That is money the state doesn't have, said VDOT's Northern Virginia Administrator Tom Farley.
"The question is, where do we get that?" he said.
SOME SPEAKERS at Tuesday's meeting mentioned the environmental impact of new lanes on the Beltway.
Nancy Byrd, who has lived near Accotink Creek since 1967, said she has seen the wildlife disappear from around the stream, as roads and housing developments crowded around it.
But now, she said, "I'm noticing that some of the wildlife is beginning to recover in this area."
Adding new lanes of traffic "is going to set it way back," she said.
Kim Novick, an organizer with the Sierra Club, said the group was opposed to adding more lanes on the Beltway for HOT lanes.
"We are very concerned about adding additional capacity expansion," she said, adding that existing lanes on the Beltway could be converted to HOT lanes. Otherwise, she said, the region's severe air pollution problem will get worse.
"I'm confident that the air-quality impact will be a wash," Groat replied.
Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said he would like to see the HOT lanes extended to allow rapid buses to link the Franconia Springfield Metro station to Orange Line stations and Tysons Corner offices. Under the current proposal, buses getting off the Beltway would get stuck in traffic.
"Being able to connect the Yellow, Blue and Orange lines with transit has got to be part of our long-term goal," he said. "Whether it's rubber tire, light rail or heavy rail, it has to happen."
Groat said he would consider Kauffman's suggestion.
"We're more than happy to look at any idea that enhances the attractiveness of the HOT lanes and makes them a better business deal," he said.
Other speakers, such as Chris Walker, were enthusiastic about the HOT lanes idea. Walker, a commercial real-estate developer on the Dulles Toll Road, called the HOT lanes "an excellent concept" that ought to be replicated all over Northern Virginia.