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Beltway Getting HOT in ‘08?

Construction of high occupancy toll lanes on I-495 could begin next spring.

A project envisioning a congestion-free road network on some of the local interstates is in the works. If successful, it could allow some Northern Virginia commuters to reach their destinations promptly, a rarity in the traffic-choked region.

"This place is a growth machine," said Tim Young, development manager for Transurban, one of the companies involved with the project. "If we don’t do something about the congestion, that machine will slow down."

"We’re adding a city of Lynchburg every year in this area," said Dennis Morrison, Northern Virginia District Administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

Transurban, an Australian-based company specializing in development and ownership of toll roads is partnering with Vienna-based engineering and construction company Fluor to build two high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes projects in Northern Virginia. HOT lane users would pay a toll, which would vary on how much traffic is on the lanes during that time. Young said there is still a lot of work to be done on tolling, but that the current envisioned range is $0.10 per mile to $1 per mile. Public transportation, emergency vehicles and vehicles with three or more people in them would use the lanes for free.

The first project visualizes 14 miles of HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway (I-495). A one-way trip on a congestion-free Beltway could cost anywhere between $1.40 and $14, depending on how many vehicles are using the system at the time. Four lanes, two in each direction, would link Springfield to McLean. The second project envisions 56 miles of HOT lanes in the interstate 95/395 corridor. The current high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes would convert to HOT lanes, and extend 28 miles south into Spotsylvania County. The projects propose a public-private partnership with VDOT, qualifying them to be built under the Public-Private Transportation Act.

Morrison said the project could play a major role in promoting more use of public transportation. "If we’re going to encourage people to use buses, they need to have free-flowing roads," said Morrison. He added that the public-private partnership makes the expansion of the two corridors financially possible, because the state does not have the funds to expand them itself.

However, the partnership between VDOT and the private companies has not been finalized. "We don’t have a project yet," said Morrison, because a funding agreement is yet to be reached. Finalization of the agreement is expected by the end of the year. In that case, construction of HOT lanes on the Beltway would start in the spring of 2008, and they would become operational by 2013.

REPRESENTATIVES FROM Transurban-Fluor and VDOT met with local residents on Tuesday, May 22, to discuss the two projects, particularly the Beltway HOT lanes project. Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) organized the meeting. The public was skeptical of the project, questioning its basic operations, construction schedule without a final agreement and safety concerns once the lanes are operational.

"How far do they have to go with it before they realize it is a bad project, and then it’s too late," said Sally Ormsby.

High occupancy toll lanes are designed to give motorists an option to use free-flowing lanes of traffic in exchange for using public transportation, carpooling or paying a toll that varies in price. Congestion pricing uses a supply and demand concept. The more cars using the lanes, the more expensive the toll is. If the capacity of the lanes gets close to be reached, higher tolls would dissuade motorists from using the lanes.

"It’s all about choices," said Young. Motorists would be informed about the toll price in plenty of time to decide whether to use the HOT lanes or to stay in the regular lanes. Toll collection will be entirely electronic. "This is not the toll road we’re used to seeing all across America," said Young. "There’s going to be no slowing down" to pay the toll.

SOME CITIZENS at the meeting questioned the construction schedule of the Beltway project, given that the agreement between the private companies and VDOT has not been finalized. "There is no final agreement, it is a for-profit venture and construction is due to start in a year," said Deborah Reyher, of Vienna. She asked whether the public side would lose leverage in negotiating the agreement with the construction schedule approaching. "When will you have a final agreement," she asked.

Morrison said the state would not enter into an agreement that would not benefit the state. "We wouldn’t sign an agreement that we weren’t comfortable with," said Morrison. He said the final agreement may take three months to sign, or maybe longer. He added that VDOT has been working with Fluor for years on this project. "We do not have a final agreement, there’s been more than six years of public input and we’re doing intensive construction planning," said Morrison.

If the agreement is reached in time, next spring’s construction would occur at the same time as some of the construction for the Metrorail extension beyond Dulles Airport and other projects in the region. Morrison said coordination and communication would be key in order to make the construction of the projects as easy on the local traffic as possible. "Communication, communication, communication is vital," said Morrison.

Ceresa Haney challenged Morrison on the communication. She said communication has been a problem regarding this project, especially from VDOT’s side. She obtained all of her information from Fluor’s Web site, and found nothing about it on the VDOT web site.

A concern was also raised that the traffic from the HOT lanes would be dumped into a brick wall, since the lanes would end just north of the Dulles Toll Road, an area that sees a lot of congestion in rush hour. Morrison said the American Legion Bridge presented an issue, and may be something to be looked into in the future.

THE PUBLIC ALSO had questions about the electronic tolling. McLean resident Dennis Frew asked how the electronic toll would distinguish a high occupancy vehicle from a one or two-person vehicle. Teresa Egan, also of McLean, went a step further and asked how the high occupancy vehicle could go through the toll without being charged. Young said there is a lot of ongoing research on that type of detection, and that there are a number of solutions being looked into. However, he said, distinguishing between high occupancy and other vehicles would be enforcement focused.

"That’s what we do on HOV now," added Morrison.

"We’re focused on being as convenient as possible," said Young, reminding the audience that the HOT lanes would not be operational until 2013, leaving some room for new technology to be developed.

Egan also wanted to know if hybrid cars and motorcycles would use the lanes free of charge. Morrison said a final decision on hybrids had not been made, given that more and more cars are hybrids, and the HOT lanes present a capacity issue.

Safety on the HOT lanes was another concern. "You could put light rail on this corridor for a 10th of the cost [of HOT lanes], and rail is safer," said Carey Campbell. He added that constructing HOT lanes does not do anything in terms of cutting the region’s and nation’s dependence on foreign oil.