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Editorial: HOT-Lanes and No Metro for I-66?

Did you miss the public discussion and input? So did we.

One day when I was stuck in traffic on I-66, I was briefly entertained by the license plate of the vehicle in front of me. "66 SUCKS," it read.

No question, commuting on I-66 is a bear.

But last week, Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a request for the private sector to make improvements on the 25 miles between Route 15 and the Beltway.

A press release Thursday, June 27, announced that the "Commonwealth is looking for the best and brightest ideas, suggestions and recommendations from the private sector to transform I-66 from a highly congested corridor to a multi-modal transportation facility that moves traffic and people more efficiently."

So far so good. But the devil is in the details, which call to:

  • Widen I-66 by building additional general purpose lanes that would not be tolled

  • Convert the existing high occupancy vehicle lane into either a one or two lane (in each direction) facility that would be free to carpoolers, buses and emergency vehicles. The HOV lanes would operate similar to the I-495 Express Lanes, which were completed late 2012 or the I-95 Express Lanes, which are under construction.

  • Locate Bus Rapid Transit in the median of I-66 extending west from Vienna to Haymarket.

Wait, Bus Rapid Transit is the only transit option in the request. Metrorail, VRE, light rail, all eliminated from consideration with the push of a "send" button.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority expressed "grave concern regarding the lack of transit concepts moving forward for additional consideration." The NVTA said in a letter to McDonnell: "Although Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is on the list of seven concepts being recommended for Tier 2, the absence of Metrorail extensions, VRE extensions and light rail transit is surprising. ... We are concerned by the exclusion of these transit options for additional study, as this could preclude development of these options in the future and is in conflict with existing and planned transit facilities for the I-66 Corridor."

This specific invitation to the private sector would stop consideration of any transit except bus rapid transit. While bus rapid transit should certainly be considered, this route could be a logical extension of the Metro Orange Line past Vienna, and VRE is also operating in the area. This is not the place to stop the consideration of transit options.

Also of concern is the fact that the 495 Express Lanes have not operated long enough to be fairly evaluated. Use of the lanes has been significantly below projections, and revenue has fallen short as well.

Nationwide, most HOT-Lanes projects are significantly underperforming projections. Turning over tolls for 75-80 years to a private partner is questionable, and the public needs to understand that the commonwealth invested heavily in the 495-Express Lanes as well.

The 495 Express Lanes were "funded with an extraordinary package of private equity, state funds and federal credit assistance, under a public-private partnership agreement signed on Dec. 20, 2007," according to Public Works Financing newsletter. "Key to making the numbers work were the large contribution from VDOT and the flexible federal credit assistance."

The agreement includes no limit on the amount of tolls, "protecting" the private investor from "excessive" HOV use (use of the lanes is free if there are three or more people in the vehicle), and revenue sharing with the commonwealth only after the project has met the optimistic expected return on investment of 13 percent.

There have been significant benefits to the 495 Express Lanes project including replacement of aging bridges and interchanges and additional capacity in the regular lanes. But we have no idea what those benefits will cost in the long run.

McDonnell should heed the request of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and pull back from the current request. Other transit options must be on the table, although bus rapid transit could still emerge as the best option. And an impartial analysis of how high occupancy toll lanes are working so far, and what Virginia’s obligations are if they do not meet expectation, is a must before going forward on I-66.

At presstime, early this week because of the Independence Day holiday, McDonnell released a draft 2013 Virginia PPTA Pipeline, calling for public comment between now and Aug. 1. Ten "candidate projects" include; I-66 Corridor Improvements; Air Rights Development (VDOT); I-64 HOV to HOT Conversion; I-495 Express Lanes Extension; Cell Tower/Fiber Optic Opportunities. Ten conceptual projects include: Advertising/Sponsorship Opportunities (VDOT); Parking Facilities Enhancements (VDOT); Rest Area Enhancements.

See www.vappta.org.