The end of congestion on I-66? Some can hope.
One of the Washington metropolitan region’s most congested highways could be expanded to include EZ Pass-only toll lanes that also would be used by express buses and HOV commuters, one of ten concepts for the future of I-66 the Virginia Department of Transportation unveiled during a public meeting in Vienna Thursday night.
“Extending Metrorail is one of the concepts. So as we move forward through the environmental process we will then start to evaluate what is the best solution for I-66,” said Rene’e Hamilton, the project manager at VDOT.
The changes under consideration affect I-66 from the Beltway (I-495) to Haymarket in Fairfax and Prince William Counties. Arlington’s historic opposition to expanding the highway makes significant changes inside the Beltway highly unlikely. VDOT’s plans reflect the agency’s recent movement toward involving the private sector in major transportation projects, and this project may result in another public-private partnership (P3) akin to the 495 Express Lanes, which opened in Nov. 2012, and 95 Express Lanes, which are scheduled to open early next year, projects.
The leveraging of private capital and private sector innovation that reduces a project’s total cost remains attractive to state transportation officials – Virginia has an office to facilitate P3s – even with a large infusion of public tax revenues on the way following last year’s transportation funding overhaul. But the contract between the state and the construction conglomerate Fluor-Transurban to build the $1.9 billion 495 Express Lanes ceded the toll revenues to the private firm for the next 75 years, causing some to question whether the tradeoff is worth it.
“No one can predict in the future how the project is going to do. If the company files bankruptcy, then what does that mean for the taxpayers if it doesn’t work out?” said Reston resident Norbert Pink.
VDOT’s Hamilton said no decisions have been made regarding another P3 for I-66 as the state is still preparing for the next round of environmental approvals.
“We are going to have to come up with creative ways to solve the problem. We haven’t decided on that yet. That is one of the concepts we are looking at this particular point,” she said.
Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity said his choice would be to add two lanes in each direction that are tolled with free access for express buses and HOV commuters. One reason why traffic has been light on the 495 Express Lanes, said Herrity, is the new lanes run only 14 miles; a larger network of managed toll lanes will generate more traffic volume.
“I think the answer is to run express bus on a express lanes-type road. It gives you the mass transit option, the carpool option, and it gives you congestion relief,” Herrity said. “We need two lanes in each direction and have it be a toll road so we can actually fund the improvements on I-66.”