When Virginia transportation officials on Thursday unveiled plans designed to ease the commute on one of the region’s most congested highways, a future of high speed, long distance travel by automobile came into view, a vision smart-growth advocates generally say Northern Virginia must avoid.
But unlike past decades that saw single-occupant vehicles sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic no matter how wide the highway, the state’s top transportation planners foresee a 70-mile network of express toll lanes that will offer motorists the option of paying for a reliable commute, carpooling free or hopping an express bus to reach their jobs.
Commuters who have clamored for more highway capacity will get it, but unless they are in an HOV-3 carpool they will have to pay a toll to use it.
I-66 plans unveiled
The Virginia Department of Transportation is proposing widening notorious I-66 to five lanes in each direction for 25 miles from the Beltway to Haymarket. Three lanes would remain open to all traffic; the other two would be E-ZPass-only toll lanes where HOV-3 carpoolers ride free.
The toll lanes would also accommodate “rapid bus service” operated by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, connecting commuters to new park-and-ride lots and offering an alternative to Metro's packed Orange Line.
When the new I-66 is linked to the 14-mile 495 Express Lanes (opened in November 2012) which will connect to the 30-mile 95 express lanes early next year, a network of managed toll lanes will stretch across 70 miles of Northern Virginia parallel to the regularly congested “free” lanes.
As it did with both 495 and 95, Virginia will seek a private sector partner to finance and reconstruct I-66, making it the third corridor in Northern Virginia where motorists’ tolls will be deposited into a private highway builder’s account, not the state treasury.
“The tolling should be to compensate the risk and the amount of capital put in to support the additional capacity," said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne at a briefing at VDOT headquarters in Fairfax.
The commonwealth simply does not have the necessary funds – even with federal assistance – to build highways and then toll them to pay for their maintenance or other transportation improvements, Layne said. The private sector will build the roads and collect the tolls as a return on its investment.
The I-66 plan has an estimated cost of $2 to $3 billion. Construction could start in 2017 with the goal of opening the new lanes by 2020.
More lanes the answer?
The Obama administration is proposing allowing states to toll existing capacity on interstate highways to raise money to pay for transportation improvements. Current law allows states to toll interstates only if new lanes are added.
Virginia is not interested in the federal proposal. The result is highways in Virginia will grow wider, which smart-growth and transit advocates say contradicts their goals of reducing car dependency and encouraging people to live closer to their jobs or transit hubs.
“Governor McAuliffe believes strongly there should always be a free alternative,” Sec. Layne said, referring to the model of building toll lanes parallel to the old lanes.
Layne indicated the state would seek more favorable financial terms with whomever it hires to fix I-66, but that may require spending more public money up front.
In its deals with Australia-based construction conglomerate Transurban to build the 495 and 95 Express Lanes, Virginia conceded the toll revenues for 75 years. The state’s contribution to each project was relatively small: $100 million for 95 (total cost $925 million) and $400 million for 495 ($2 billion).
“We will be negotiating the best public contribution, not the lowest,” Layne said. “We want the best return on our money, not just putting the least amount out the door.”
Transportation policy experts say tolling new highway lanes may be part of a solution designed to move people and goods faster.
“There is not one answer to how we are going to solve our traffic problems, particularly on long corridors,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.
“We are still a growing region. So there is going to have to be some kind of added capacity. Some of that will be on roadways. Some will be on the transit network. But even transportation solutions aren't enough. We have to think about where residents are living, where they are working, and how they are getting around. These are intractable problems that are going to require lots of different solutions,” Puentes said.
Commuters’ tolerance for tolls
The more money Virginia contributes up front, the lower the tolls may be on I-66, Layne said.
On 495, the average toll charged during the most recent quarter was $2.83, according to a report released by Transurban. Most customers paid less than $5 per trip. However, when congestion has been at its worst in the corridor, the toll Transurban charged for the entire 14-mile stretch of the 495 Express Lanes has climbed above $10.
Layne said maintaining a “free” option – he mentioned that taxpayers already pay for roads through gas taxes – parallel to express lanes is fair to low-income earners who may not be able to afford daily tolls.
“That is very regressive to lower income people that have to use the roads. We are seeing that at the Midtown Tunnel in Hampton Roads. $1.50 each way for someone making minimum wage is big part of their income.”
Rapid buses’ untapped potential
Where road building advocates and transit supporters may find a middle ground as Virginia paves more and more highways lanes is at the bus stop.
Express bus service, or a more ambitious bus rapid transit system, could move tens of thousands of commuters at high speeds every rush hour using the same new lanes that charge inefficient single-occupant vehicles a toll.
“One of the major benefits of this [I-66] project is the transit element and the regional express bus network,” said highway lobbyist Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.
"If we build these managed lanes people will have a fast, flexible alternative to the automobile that can get them directly from Manassas to Tysons Corner, to Arlington, to Springfield and hopefully one day across the river into Maryland,” he said.
Considering building Metrorail costs many years and many billions of dollars (see: the Silver Line), express bus service may present the most cost-effective transit option.
“We have not tapped the potential of bus rapid transit in this country,” said Puentes. “There are about 180 of these systems in operation around the world. We are just now starting here in the U.S. It is part of this larger shift away from just adding highway capacity to solve our transportation problems.”