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Votes

New Alternative to Dulles Rail?

Express toll lanes proposed to replace current tolls.

The proposal would add an extra lane in each direction on the Dulles Toll Road, remove the regular tolls from the road, and convert the current HOV lanes into Express Toll Lanes (ETL). The users, and not the public would fund the proposal.

On Jan. 5, Virginia Mobility Associates, LLC applied to the Virginia Department of Transportation to build ETLs in the east and west directions of the Dulles Toll Road and I-66. T

he Dulles Expressway proposal presents an alternative to the Dulles Rail proposal, which would take the metro out to Wiehle Avenue by the year 2011.

The ETLs will provide for guaranteed travel time, at speeds of 50 to 60 mph, according to Christopher Walker, VMA chairman. The proposal is based on variable pricing, charging tolls on express lanes given the demand of the vehicles using them. Building the Dulles Expressway, according to Walker, would come at no expense to the taxpayers, and within five years would get rid of the regular tolls, currently collecting money from over 200,000 vehicles each day. In those five years, the regular tolls would not be raised, which is something that the construction of the Dulles Rail would have to do to finance itself. Furthermore, in its early stages, before the ETLs reach capacity, buses and certain high occupancy vehicles (HOV) would be allowed to use the express lanes for free.

The Dulles Expressway, according to Walker, would permit a half an hour trip from Washington, D.C. to Dulles Airport, and vice versa. It would be completed 18 months after all of the approvals for the building were completed. The vehicles in the ETLs would be charged a variable-priced rate per mile, depending on time of day and level of congestion. As far as environmental issues are concerned, VMA believes the air quality would improve along the Dulles Expressway, because there would not be as much stop-and-go traffic. The toll plazas would be abolished, and would be replaced with electronic gantries over the ETLs. The project would cost around $200 million.

"I would be very cautious about their cost estimates," said Patricia Nicoson, the president of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association. If the expressway proposal is going forward as a substitute to the rail, it would not get very far, because the rail project is moving ahead with a good deal of support, she said.

The Dulles Corridor Rail Association estimates the Dulles Rail extension to Loudoun County to cost over $3 billion.

State Sen. Kenneth Cuccinelli (R – 37) said he neither supported nor opposed the proposal, but is glad to see alternatives presented to the Dulles Rail. During the General Assembly’s 2005 session (Jan. 12 – Feb. 26), Cuccinelli plans to introduce a bill that calls for a countywide referendum on whether the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors could appropriate the money for the Dulles Rail. If the bill passes, and the referendum is held, two things could happen according to Cuccinelli. The residents of Fairfax County could vote “yes,” which will bring the financial burden of building the rail on the Board of Supervisors, asking them to come up with a plan to fund it. Or, the residents could also vote “no,” which would kill the Dulles Rail proposal.

WALKER SAID the expressway proposal would provide better public transit than now exists, or that rail would provide. Private investors and toll revenues would finance the converting of the Dulles Toll Road to the Dulles Expressway. “

There is no question if express toll lanes work,” said Walker, “the question is how to finance them.”

The tolls at the ETLs would depend on the demand of people using the lanes. The more people use them, the more expensive the tolls would be for them. Charging tolls per vehicle, according to Walker, would provide a less expensive and more comfortable way of traveling than public transportation provides. The tolls could be as high as $7 or $8 per trip, if the demand is high, which will encourage people to carpool. If a vehicle is charged a certain price to use the toll lanes, then there will be incentive for the commuters to carpool, and share the cost of the higher toll. However, the commuters can choose not to pay the toll, and stay on the free lanes. VMA hopes to connect the Dulles Freeway to a network of express toll lanes, something currently studied in Maryland through the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The ETLs on the Dulles Expressway would run in accordance with ETLs being planned for I-195, I-395, I-95, and I-270, making a network of ETL expressways a possibility.

Cuccinelli said this is a real opportunity to build a cost-effective mass transit network. “People can work in the Dulles Corridor, live in Fredericksburg, and know when they will get there and how much it will cost them,” he said. He added that from an economic standpoint, congestion is a form of demand. The demand, according to Cuccinelli, should be used to fund projects working towards congestion relief, because the project is then financed by the users, and not by the taxes paid by the whole population of the county.

The goal of the proposal is to add capacity to the roadways, and manage the congestion at no worse than a Service Level C.

The “Final Environmental Impact Statement” by the Dulles Corridor Rapid Transit Project, determined that the building of the Dulles Rail would not relieve congestion on the Toll Road. The study showed that the portion of the Dulles Toll Road between Hunter Mill Road and Reston Parkway, in the eastbound direction during peak hours, would receive a Service Level F grade in the year 2025, whether or not the Dulles Rail was extended to Wiehle Avenue.

The service level is given a grade, A through F, and is determined by the Transportation Research Board’s "Highway Capacity Manual." An F is given to a road that allows very slow speeds, has many vehicles stopped on it, and the flow is likely to be stop-and-go. The study showed if the rail were not built, in the year 2025, that portion of the Toll Road would have a peak-hour volume of 7,100 vehicles, and would receive an F for its level of service. If the rail were built, that same portion of the Toll Road, going in the same direction, would in the year 2025 accommodate 7,300 vehicles during peak hour, an increase of 200 vehicles, and would also receive an F for its level of service. The current HOV lanes would in both cases receive a C for their level of service, and would accommodate 1,200 vehicles at peak-hour. “Every freeway that parallels metro lines is extremely congested,” said Ken Reid, the spokesman for VMA, citing the parallel between I-66 and the metro’s Orange Line.

THE RAIL, according to Nicoson, would not relieve the congestion, because the area will grow in terms of population and employment. She said many people would use the rail, but every car taken off the road would be replaced by another one. The rail, added Nicoson, is necessary for the future growth. It would link the Reston area to the regional system, give it access to the capital, and would encourage office and retail development, which would create a source of tax revenue.

The unpredictability of work places, and work schedules, according to Cuccinelli, calls for flexibility in the mode of transportation. He does not believe a fixed guide way warrants the $94 million necessary to operate the Dulles Rail annually. He said there would be substantial debate before the vote on Dulles Rail, and if a viable alternative to it was introduced, rail is likely to face serious competition. Cuccinelli added a historical note, saying when Fairfax County was planned 40 years ago, the planners predicted the population of the county in the year 2000 would be a million people. Only 11 percent of the roads planned by those same people were built since that time period.

Ron Weber, a retired highway/traffic engineer, and a long time resident of Reston, said the proposal is worth a look. Weber spent over 20 years on the Planning and Zoning Commission in Fairfax County. He said the proposal showed “thinking beyond the box.” He added that the Dulles Rail would take 15 to 20 minutes longer to reach the West Falls Church metro stop from Wiehle Avenue than the bus system currently does. Weber welcomed the idea of an interconnected ETL system.

"I think the state should take a closer look at HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes," said Nicoson, "it is a promising concept." However, she said the rail would provide better service to the nearly one million residents of Fairfax County, and its workers.