MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Shier, and welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week, we're feeling the heat. And later in the show, we'll explore that theme by hanging out with a lifeguard on his shift at a local pool. In this segment, though, we're going to get a bit more metaphorical with the theme with some stories about the other ways we feel the heat in our lives, whether in the workplace, in the doctor's office or in the case of this next story in our daily commutes.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
By the end of this year commuters on the Beltway will have a new way to beat the traffic, for a price. And that's the topic of our weekly transportation segment, "From A to B."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We're talking today about the I-495 express lanes also known as HOT lanes. The $2 billion project will include two new toll lanes in each direction between the Dulles Toll Road and I-95 in Springfield, VA. But there are questions about whether these HOT lanes will actually reduce congestion. So joining us now to discuss this issue is transportation reporter Martin Di Caro. Hey there, Martin.
MR. MARTIN DI CARO
All right. So, Martin, give us the low down on this project. My understanding is this is a public-private partnership.
Right. The state of Virginia is partnering with Fluor-Transurban, a company that's built these high occupancy toll, HOT lanes in other states and around the world. And on paper, this project seems like a win, win, win. The state gets a $2 billion road, Transurban gets the toll revenues and commuters get a faster ride through a congested corridor.
Right. But I'm guessing you're going to tell me now it's more complicated than that.
Exactly. Well for starters, Transurban, the company that put up most of the capital to build it, can't say for sure if it will make a profit. Here's spokeswoman Jennifer Aument.
MS. JENNIFER AUMENT
Transurban is taking 100 percent of the traffic risk on this project. So if the traffic revenue doesn't happen, if the traffic doesn't come and we can't generate the revenue, we're taking that risk on this project.
She just said if the traffic doesn't come. That seems like a weird phrase to me because of the gridlock we see every day around this region. I mean they are expecting drivers to actually use the news lanes, right?
Yes. It's a question of how many drivers. The non-toll lanes will still be there. So when the HOT lanes open by the end of the year, Transurban will have to figure out how high to charge the tolls. They don't want to make them too high right because then that might make fewer people try the new road. If tolls are too low, Transurban doesn't make enough profit. In fact, the reason the state had to chip in about 25 percent of this project's cost was toll revenue projections weren't strong enough for Transurban to pay for the whole thing.
Aha, I got it. So I'm guessing there are a lot of carpoolers listening right now who use the Beltway every day. Martin, where do they fit into this whole equation?
If you have at least three people in your vehicle, you get to ride free. But that could also cause problems for Transurban's bottom line. Basically, if really large numbers of carpoolers use the HOT lanes, state taxpayers will wind up subsidizing those trips.
Well I'll spare you most of the dry language in the contract. But here are the basics. If at least 24 percent of vehicles in the HOT lanes on busy days are carpoolers, the state will have to pay Transurban up to 70 percent on those lost tolls. But the project supporters are downplaying this possibility. Here's VDOT's chief deputy commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick.
MR. CHARLES KILPATRICK
Is there a back stop? The answer to that is yes. Do we think we'll get there? The answer to that is no. And if we do, we still consider that a success.
Now if Transurban makes a certain profit, that subsidy won't apply. And the reason all this talk of the bottom line is important is that other private road ventures like the Dulles Greenway are not working out as planned and the contracts with the public entities had to be restructured.
For commuters, though, the bottom line is that this is a win. Right?
In some cases, yes. If you know you have to be at the doctor in 30 minutes and don't want to risk sitting in traffic, the toll lanes will be there. You know, I spoke with Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in D.C. He's also a former assistant secretary at the USDOT. He thinks the HOT lanes are a good idea because without the public-private partnership, the road doesn't get built.
MR. EMIL FRANKEL
It's a negotiated transaction between the private and the public sector in which the private sector is putting a lot of money into this only with the assurance that they're going to get a return on their investment. So the public has had to give up something in order to get this built and get the private investment made.
So, Martin, this wouldn't be Washington if there weren't some people, how should we say, questioning the wisdom of this project. What are opponents saying about the HOT lanes?
Well, they're unhappy with the deal the state got. Transurban hopes to pay off its debt in 30 years but gets the toll revenue for 75 years not the state. And smart growth advocates are concerned that Virginia is just paying lip service to transit options on the way to just expanding highways. Here's Stewart Schwartz the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
MR. STEWART SCHWARTZ
I think we should be looking at all alternatives upfront and look more objectively at transit and transit-oriented development alternatives. We should look at public ownership of the tolling so that we have access to those revenues in the future.
Schwartz says if the HOT lanes are successful and encourage more people to get in their cars there that will cause more traffic congestion on local roads when those vehicles eventually exit the new highway.
Well, we'll definitely keep an eye on this project as it continues to unfold. Martin, thanks for giving commuters a lot to think about when they head home today.
And we want to know how much would you be willing to pay to zip around the Beltway and avoid all that traffic?. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us. Our handle is @wamumetro.
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