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Letter: Is it Worth it?

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

I read with interest your recent report of the news conference held by VDOT officials on the roadway now named the 495 Express Lanes ["Fasten Your Seatbelts," Connection, April 4-10, 2012]. Your story quotes Tim Steinhilber, Transurban-Fluor's Express Lanes manager, saying that "drivers on 495 will have faster, more reliable and more predictable trips on the Capital beltway." That is welcome news since that's just the opposite of what motorists have experienced over the past several months. To be fair, things have gone better than I expected, but I have been driving frequently from my home in Great Falls to my mother's house in North Springfield and back again and long ago concluded that efforts to reduce construction impacts to drivers were too often being coordinated by the Keystone Cops. Being able to get somewhere on 495 in a timely fashion is a roll of the dice. Again, I am glad it may soon be over but will it have been worth it? Gone will be traffic lanes reduced to one or less without adequate notice. I know there were scheduled closings posted on the Internet but there were plenty of others that clearly seemed more improvised or spur of the moment. Scheduling a road closing is one thing. Carrying it out in an orderly fashion often seemed too much of a burden on construction crews. At any rate, thousands of motorists seemed to have not read the memos and paid the price. More than once, I found myself unexpectedly diverted late at night to 66 westbound because 495 simply ran out, blocked by orange cones. A single warning sign had been placed before Braddock Road. One night, when roadwork was underway on 66, 495 and Route 7 simultaneously I came upon a scene out of Dante's Inferno. With miles of traffic in all directions at a complete standstill I came over a rise to see thousands of cars and 18-wheelers stretching into Maryland, heading West and Southbound bathed in the other-worldly glow of construction spotlights. Another night I discovered I couldn't get onto 495 from Braddock Road near my mother's house. I parked and walked over to a truck where the driver was asleep and his colleague was reading emails. I asked what I was expected to do. It was suggested that I figure out how to get to Arlington Blvd. After all, there was a detour sign several hundred yards away. I had long before concluded that there was very little concern about the impact Hot Lane construction had on motorists and that they were essentially on their own so this was not a surprise.

With express lane construction winding down, presumably there now won't be quite as many bonus traffic accidents as motorists won't have to guess about ever-changing road patterns. Law enforcement reports a distinct increase in accidents and the hassle that provides, especially around Tysons Corner. There won't be power outages or water main breaks due to construction crews not knowing exactly where to dig. (I remember a power outage in the Tyson's area and the chief VDOT spokesman explaining that's what we should expect from a major construction project). That’s not what I expected. And hopefully there won't be any more traffic delays adding up to tens of thousands of man-hours lost. These will all be gained back with the opening of the express lanes.

John Lynch, VDOT regional program director, said at the news conference that with the express lanes, "the transportation picture in Northern Virginia gets another dimension that was not available before." Rather than a new dimension, how about producing some actual benefits? Is there a study that shows that traffic jams will actually be reduced? 395 is generally a parking lot during rush hour despite the HOV lanes. 95 is the same. Traffic exiting the new express lanes will have to merge with motorists on 495 heading into Maryland just before Georgetown Pike. Traffic exiting in the other direction will likely have the same problem or worse. How is that going to work out? Who owns the express lanes? Why are State Troopers and emergency crews tasked with patrolling the Express Lanes when Transurban-Fluor gets to keep the tolls for 70-years? I guess the revenue from fines will help pay for the Troopers’ time but it seems like a waste of officer’s time and taxpayer’s money having them sort out how many passengers are in a car. I guess the electronic gizmo that was reportedly going to be used to determine the number of passengers in cars entering the express lanes won’t be perfected in time. The same appears to go for the super duper way of paying fees. Now motorists with three or more passengers will have to "switch off" their EZ Pass transponder to avoid tolls. More than likely they will just put it under their seat. Questions remain because, as one official put it early on, the public should not have expected to be privy to the details of negotiations between the state and Transurban-Fluor.

Some time ago, The Great Falls Connection suggested that the state could have floated the bonds and negotiated the federal loans to build the express lanes, owned the highway outright and kept the tolls. That logic seems to have been lost on the public officials at the time this scheme was cooked up who, like the pharaohs, wanted to leave a monument behind. A monument to what is still to be determined. Hot lanes on I-95 anyone?

Arthur Kingdom III

Great Falls