Hot Lanes Prove Hot Topic

Hot Lanes Prove Hot Topic

Timing of decision could be crucial

<bt>Commuting drivers using I-95/395 from Fredricksburg to the District of Columbia who want to save more time than offered by HOV lanes may get their wish. But it could cost them up to $15 per day.

If so-called HOT, High Occupancy Toll, lanes become a reality on the 30-plus mile stretch of the interstate corridor connecting the two destinations, tolls are projected to range from 10 to 25 cents per mile in 2008 depending on time of day. The maximum cost would escalate to an estimated 40 cents per mile by 2020, making a daily commute $24 per round trip in peak hours.

That estimate was given to the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee last Friday morning at the Springfield Hilton Hotel during a presentation by Clark/Shirley Construction Group, one of the entities vying to build the HOT Lanes project, dubbed by them as "95 Express."

"All the local governments impacted along the corridor have said they want HOT lanes in the 95/395 corridor. We think our proposal addresses the issue on both the northern and southern end of that corridor," said Tracy M. Baynard, director of greater Washington government relations and business expansion services for McGuireWoods Consulting, McLean.

She was joined in the presentation by James A. Hooff, senior vice president of Clark Construction Group, Bethesda, Md, one of the firms bidding on the project and hoping to be chosen by the Virginia Department of Transportation. "We submitted our proposal to VDOT two years ago. VDOT will make a recommendation to the commissioner by October," Hooff told the four committee members present.

THAT TIME FRAME raised some concern with state Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-39) who also attended the early morning session. "Since an election will have just taken place and there will probably be a new commissioner no matter who wins, is it appropriate for an acting commissioner from this administration to make this decision?" O'Brien asked.

"This is a real change from the way we have traditionally done business in Virginia and I think it might be better to postpone the decision for six months to allow a new commissioner to get acclimated. Otherwise you could have a new team that takes the attitude they didn't approve this and might not be as supportive," he said.

O'Brien said he was "a supporter" of the HOT Lanes concept but was questioning only the "political timing" of the decision process. He also urged that there be enough points of access and egress to make it viable for potential users all along the corridor.

HOT Lanes are often referred to as "Lexus Lanes" by those opposing the concept due to toll costs and the assumption they discourage ride sharing.

"Lexus Lanes is a misnomer. We estimate that only 12 to 20 percent of drivers will use HOT lanes on any given day. And that won't be the same people every day. People will use them when it is a necessity to save time," Baynard said.

While Low Occupancy Vehicles can use the HOT lanes by paying a toll, existing carpools, vanpools, sluggers and buses continue to use the facility for free, according to the group's newsletter. "As a result, HOT solutions increase commuter choices, improve the effectiveness of HOV facilities ... and provide an income stream to pay for transportation and transit capital improvements," the group states.

CLARK/SHIRLEY has been involved in other HOT Lane projects in Minnesota and Orange County, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. Cofiroute USA and Wilbur Smith Associates, members of the 95 Express team, "played critical roles in developing the toll system for MinPass I-394 Express Lanes," the nation's first conversion of a HOV system to a HOT lane system, which recently opened in Minnesota.

The I-95/395 project is estimated to cost $816 million to construct with an additional $60 million in transit investment, according to Hooff. "This will be supplemented by another $500 million in future transit investments," he said.

"This project is 100 percent self-financed based on the sale of 40-year bonds to be paid by the tolls," Baynard said. "Up to this point we are at risk as a company," Hooff added.

"When we looked at this we looked at the total transportation system, not just vehicular. We are giving VRE (Virginia Railway Express) $30 million which they will probably use to buy additional rail cars," Hooff said. VRE is experiencing a 16 percent annual ridership growth.

IN ADDITION Clark/Shirley is committed to building a new service center for motorists using the HOT lanes. "We've built our proposal based on existing and future conditions of the corridor as well as improvement recommendations found in existing local, regional and state transportation plans," wrote Michael Post of the Clark/Shirley Team in the 2005 summer edition of their newsletter explaining details of "95 Express."

Other benefits of the project cited by Baynard and Hooff during their presentation included:

* Conservative financing plan requires no public funds, provides the lowest interest cost, returns the system to the Commonwealth at the earliest possible date and no later than 40 years

* Frees up $85 million in other transportation funds

* Pays for Phase 8 of the Springfield Interchange project connecting HOV/HOT lanes to the Capital Beltway

* Converts existing two-lane HOV facility from 14th Street Bridge to Route 234 to three HOV/HOT lanes and eventually extends HOV/HOT lanes to Route 17 at Fredericksburg

* Provides funding for expansion and new construction of more than 2,000 parking spaces.