Tale of Two High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lane Projects in Virginia

The front page of the Metro Section of the Washington Post recapped the 1995 Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC) decisions as they affect traffic in Northern Virginia.

“Plans to move more than 19,000 defense workers to far-flung sites along Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia by fall 2011 are expected to add thousands of car commuters to the region’s road network, further clogging an area with the nation’s second-worst traffic. State and local officials, running short of time and money, aren’t certain they can do enough to widen roads, build exit ramps and make other fixes by the deadline mandated by the 2005BRAC plan. Making matters worse, many workers will move from public transit even as regional policymakers push for job growth near transit lines.”

And as noted later in the article, many private sector jobs will shift location also further down the corridor following the military. At least 13,000 jobs are slated to relocate from Crystal City, two subway stops from the Pentagon, to areas largely dependent on cars.

The job shifts could be good news in Prince William, Stafford and southern Fairfax counties, which are likely to benefit economically from more defense workers and the contractors who follow them. However, the changes will create at least two new choke points along the I-95 corridor near Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County and near Seminary Road in Alexandria.

Since the BRAC plan was announced in 2005, the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has been scrambling. As Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaugton said, “We are trying to make sure that . . . this does not have an impact on the entire transportation grid.”

Even the Army is engaged as the L. Jerry Hansen, Deputy assistant secretary of the Army, who is overseeing the job shifts, said the Pentagon and local governments are working to ensure that commuters don’t get stuck. He cited plans for shuttle bus service, slug lines, flexible work hours, ride sharing, carpooling, transportation vouchers, van pools and teleworking. Details expected by mid-summer.

According to the Post story “The Defense Department also might give local governments more money than now allowed by federal law to help pay for road work, he said. And the Army has donated some land to make improvements to ease commutes to and from Fort Belvoir.”

The close-in Mark Center complex is the real challenge and the dispute over the Winkler Nature Preserve slowed the search for a way to bring 6,400 commuters into one complex easily with (at moment) only one small exit ramp. The building is just off the interstate and clearly some new alternative exit is needed. Vanpools, ride sharing, carpooling etc. will not be enough.

Virginia has had on its desk since 2005, a public-private partnership proposal to convert the high occupancy (HOV) lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on I95/395. The proposal and information can be found here and an interim agreement was signed in 2006.

(HOT lanes offer HOV drivers and buses free access while giving single drivers the option of using free lanes or paying to use HOT lanes which are expected to provide smoother, faster travel during peak hours with tolls adjusting given the traffic volume.)

The proposal to convert HOV lanes to HOT lanes, would have expanded the capacity in terms of the number of lanes and eventually added mileage further south made eminent sense and could have been well underway by now. Bus routes would be established, van pools would be working and park and ride lots would be built. But the financial close of the contract was postponed due to many snags and objections. For example, objections from the “slugs” (those who jump into cars to make up a car pool to meet HOV requirements) because the slugs did not want their life to change. What they kept forgetting was how much the BRAC decisions would impact their life anyway.

Now comes the tale of the Beltway HOT lane project on I495, the other HOT lane project in Northern Virginia. Further back in the same Metro section, this article was the about the private sector partner making creative suggestions for adjustments to the project to meet the needs of the locals. Plus, the private sector planned on picking up the tab! While nothing is for certain, it is a healthy discussion and potential solution brought forward by the private sector.

More information regarding the proposal was presented by our friend Peter Samuel at Tollroads News with maps here.

The real question here, is the how much further along the solutions for the I95/395 corridor would be had the public-private partnership HOT lane proposal moved along at pace. With a public-private partnership agreement signed and investments being made already, it is my view that Northern Virginia, VDOT and Defense Department would be wringing their hands much less with the private sector contributing to the solutions.