Virginia broke ground on an ambitious plan to improve and expand 30 miles of HOV/toll lanes on the I-95 corridor in northern Virginia on Tuesday, a $1 billion project that is scheduled for completion in December 2014. The I-95 Express Lanes are the result of another public-private partnership between the state and Fluor-Transurban, the company that built the soon-to-be completed 495 HOT lanes.
A win-win proposition
Under the agreement, Virginia gets an expanded commuting corridor with fully electronic toll lanes connecting Fairfax to Stafford County for contributing less than 10 percent of the project's cost, while Transurban will receive the toll revenues for 75 years. The state carries none of the traffic risk.
"The contract we signed with the state is a very equitable contract. We are taking the traffic risk," said Transurban General Manager Tim Steinhilber. "Once we build the road, if no one comes to use the road, then we don't make any money. We lose money."
Naturally, Transurban expects to turn a profit. If profits exceed a certain threshold, the state may share in toll revenues. At the other end of the spectrum, if HOV-3 carpoolers exceed a 35 percent threshold under certain circumstances, the state would have to subsidize those trips to ensure Transurban doesn't take a bath on the free rides. There is a similar safety net in the 495 HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes contract.
"Traditionally across the country, HOV lanes are underutilized. We are working with the state to encourage carpoolers because that takes cars off the road and reduces congestion for everyone," said Steinhilber. "If we get to the point where the state would start [subsidizing] the HOVers, it's a win-win."
Like the 495 HOT lanes, the I-95 Express Lanes will be located adjacent to the regular, non-toll lanes giving drivers a choice: take the chance of getting stuck in traffic or pay a dynamically-priced toll for a faster ride. The more volume on the new toll lanes, the higher the toll will be charged. Unlike the 495 HOT lanes, which built four new lanes in each direction, the I-95 project will enhance existing lanes while adding a third HOV lane to 14 miles in the northernmost stretch of the corridor and two new lanes to the 9 miles at the southern end.
Politicians tout economic benefits
At a groundbreaking ceremony at the Dale City rest area Tuesday morning, state and federal officials, including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, touted the project's estimated economic benefits: 500 construction personnel with an overall impact of $2 billion by supporting 8,000 regional jobs. As many as 1,000 trees will also be planted along the corridor that is designed to eventually seamlessly connect to the Capital Beltway at I-495, quickening trips to job centers in Tyson's Corner, Va.
"If you can't move people and you can't move goods quickly to market, you are not going to get businesses coming here and you aren't going to get tourists. It's going to impair the quality of life for all of us," said McDonnell.
When whether Virginia is becoming overly reliant on highway expansion projects to solve its dreadful congestion problems, McDonnell responded that the state is trying different solutions.
"We are trying to do everything," he said. "We are going to have a number of projects up here that will use mass transit. We've been advocating rail to Dulles."