Greater Greater Washington

HOT lanes and the Arlington lawsuit, part 1: Myth vs. reality

Arlington's lawsuit over the I-95/395 HOT lane project has drawn a constant drumbeat of scathing editorials from the Washington Post and others, and critical letters from certain politicians and road activists.


Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

But do the editorial writers and reporters covering this issue really know what they're praising or condemning? Do you? Take this little true-false test:

  1. True or false: Arlington's lawsuit asked VDOT to cancel the I-395 segment of the project.
  2. True or false: Arlington dropped the lawsuit because the 395 segment was deleted.
  3. True or false: The HOT lanes will speed up travel in the 95/395 corridor.
  4. True or false: Arlington didn't "press for solutions" and just jumped to sue to block the project, as the Washington Post charged in an editorial Friday.
  5. True or false: VDOT didn't move ahead with the lanes because the lawsuit was blocking their ability to proceed.
  6. True or false: Fairfax and Prince William Counties want the project to move forward.
  7. True or false: The lawsuit claims some people are racists for pushing the project.

Answers: They're all false.

Virginia has been eagerly pursuing projects to build HOT lanes, such as on the Beltway. HOT lanes are separated lanes which carpoolers and buses can use for free, but solo drivers can also use for a toll.

On the Beltway, these are new lanes. By charging a toll, theoretically the project can make back much of the cost of construction. To accomplish this, the state has contracted the lanes out to a private consortium, Fluor-Transurban, which will build the lanes, then operate them and keep the profits.

However, charging tolls on lanes doesn't quite pay for building them. Therefore, the contract also includes extra payments from the state, a pernicious provision that if more than 24% of vehicles are the carpoolers or buses not paying a toll, Virginia has to pay a penalty, and other problems.

In theory, a network of roads with HOT lanes has some advantages, though the cost of building many new freeway lanes would be better spent on transit. But if we could go back in time and reconfigure every freeway to have some HOT lanes as part of their original design, we'd at least be able to run a fast network of buses around the region, and encourage carpooling.

We do have one such example to look to: the existing 95/395. Here, there already is a set of HOV lanes, originally built as bus-only lanes (the "Shirley Busway,") then converted to HOV as well as bus. This corridor "is recognized by the transportation community as the most successful HOV facility in the United States today," according to a VDOT study.

The "slugging" system encourages many people who might otherwise drive alone to instead carpool. That means that far more people are traveling per car than elsewhere. Likewise, many very successful, heavily-ridden commuter buses ply the corridor, and riders enjoy a speedy trip thanks to the lanes.

This makes the 95/395 project fundamentally different from others. Instead of considering a new facility, this project would take the existing one, convert it from HOV to HOT by allowing solo drivers on with a toll, and widen it by one lane.

How would this affect the existing HOV performance? Would buses go faster or slower? Would fewer people slug?

The biggest question is, would 3 HOT lanes move more people than 2 HOV lanes? It's not totally clear. Some people would switch to paying the toll instead. If only 1/3 of the 3-passenger HOV cars instead become 3 separate drivers paying tolls, those people could all fill up the new lane with single-passenger cars without the road moving a single extra person than before. The same goes if even a relatively small fraction of bus riders switch to paying the toll.

That would all be great for these companies, since Fluor would get money from the state to build the road, and then Transurban would get money from the tolls. It wouldn't be good for Virginians, though. People would be paying more for the same trip, air quality would decline, the commuter bus operators would lose riders, and the road wouldn't be any better than before.

Or maybe it would be better. If VDOT did an analysis, local governments could either know their fears were founded, or not. For example, an earlier VDOT study of switching 95/395 from HOV-3 to HOV-2 concluded that, at least without new lanes, allowing 2-passenger carpools would increase the number of cars using the road but decrease the overall number of people the road moves each day.

VDOT did an environmental analysis for the Beltway HOT lanes. However, 10 days before the end of the Bush administration, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) gave a "categorical exclusion" allowing Virginia to simply skip this analysis altogether.

And this is why Arlington sued.

Myth 1: Arlington's lawsuit asked VDOT to cancel the I-395 segment of the HOT lane project.

Arlington was asking VDOT not to cancel any particular part of the project, but rather to perform the required analysis before moving ahead. VDOT refused, and wasn't answering questions, so they brought the lawsuit to force the analysis and get some answers.

Myth 2: Arlington dropped the lawsuit because the 395 segment was deleted.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton announced that VDOT would cut back the planned HOT lanes to 395. He worded the announcement in a way that made it sound like, under duress, they were acceding to Arlington's request and taking away the portion in Arlington (and Alexandria). Arlington also dropped the lawsuit last week.

To the casual observer, it sure looked like VDOT gave Arlington what they want, so they dropped the suit. And VDOT did give Arlington what they were asking for, but removing the 395 portion wasn't it.

Instead, what's significant is that VDOT agreed to actually perform an environmental analysis. They'll likely still ram through a project with some significant bad elements, but they'll at least answer a few key questions first.

Foremost among those questions is this: Will these HOT lanes actually end up moving traffic more slowly?

In the next part, we'll look at why this is a real danger.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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David, I hope you've done your usual very careful research into this, but I believe the correspondence between Arlington and the state shows that the EIS was always planned for the southern portions of the HOT lanes (phase II). The full impact study was avoided for the 395 portion (phase I) when the CE was approved, but before phase II could get underway with their final design and review, the lawsuit hit, and funding went south and everything got put on hold.

Arlington had a large pdf on their website of correspondence between all the parties going back five or so years leading up to the suit. Sometime around when VDOT presented the new plans and Arlington dropped the suit, the county revised their webpage and the correspondence file is not as robust as it once was.

Still, I have yet to see any firm document saying they intended not to do an EIS on the phase II part.

by Lou on Feb 14, 2011 2:45 pm • linkreport

Looking forward to the next part.

by stevek_fairfax on Feb 14, 2011 2:56 pm • linkreport

As I've said before, this plan was canned because Transurban line of credit was downgraded to junk status by Portuguese banks. Wonder why they are bankrupt? Giving 99 year loans to corrupt projects like this is a big reason.

by charlie on Feb 14, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport

#2 may be false, but the timing is too coincidental not to take notice...

#5 is half-true, at least regarding Fairfax. Prince William is understandably concerned about the impact on sluggers.

by Froggie on Feb 14, 2011 4:27 pm • linkreport

If I understood the plans correctly, the I-95 HOT lanes *will* continue on the Fairfax part of I-395, which is until exit 2/Edsall Rd. The would also be a connection between the I-495 HOT lanes and the I-95 ones.

That's what we need. More spaghetti ramps in the mixing bowl.

by Jasper on Feb 14, 2011 4:51 pm • linkreport

@Froggie, #2 is definitely debatable. I tend to think the suit was dropped in part because of all the bad press about the civil rights violation claims against individuals, and the likelihood that the County never really wanted to go to court.

As for the reason the suit was filed in the first place, blocking the project was not the ultimate intent. But Zimmerman was very focused on allocating enough toll revenue back into transit spending, since transit use would probably drop once the HOT lane option was available. I think he felt if a favorable formula could not be found, they would hold the project hostage with the suit until a better one could be negotiated. Again, not intending to go to court.

by Lou on Feb 14, 2011 5:21 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: you are correct. The existing HOV crossover ramps north of Edsall Rd is where the HO/T lanes would transition to the existing HOV lanes. And said "more spaghetti ramps" at the Springfield Interchange are already being built...those are the ramps that would provide the HO/T lane connections between 95/395 and the Beltway.

by Froggie on Feb 15, 2011 8:06 am • linkreport

It's sorta hard to argue that Arlington's idiotic strategy did NOT involve calling people racists when they alleged civil rights violations against INDIVIDUAL government officials. That's a HUGE deal. The nuclear option of fighting against a proposal. Because it means the individual could be held liable and be essentially bankrupted - not to mention having their reputation tarnished as a racist.

A worthy apologia for Arlington, but some of the "myths" don't seem all that mythical.

by Fritz on Feb 15, 2011 9:09 am • linkreport

Something often overlooked as to the inside-the-Beltway portion of the HOT proposal is the point that there was to be a third lane constructed in the existing express lane carriageway (which David Alpert mentions), but that lane was to be constructed within the existing footprint by narrowing the two existing lanes and removing the shoulders. That was a terrible idea. Breakdowns and accidents snarl the traffic badly enough even when there is a shoulder. Imagine the mess when something occurred with no shoulder available (as I assume happens often enough on the portion of I-66 outside the Beltway where the shoulder is used as a lane for part of the day).

The Springfield Interchange's Phase VIII, which is what Froggie mentions is now underway, is something that is a worthwhile project regardless of any HOT conversion. Those ramps will eliminate the need for express lane traffic to use the mainline between the Beltway and the Turkeycock ramps located between Edsall Road and Duke Street. (The ramps are so named because Turkeycock Run flows under the highway there.) The loop-around ramp that will serve traffic coming from, or going to, the express lanes south of the Beltway is an intriguing thing to watch being built.

What I have not seen yet is some sort of information about how they intend to design the exit ramp from the HOT facility to the northbound mainline in the vicinity of Edsall Road. It seems to me that if environmental regulations permit it, the best place would be to build a new slip ramp at the existing Turkeycock facility and to configure it so that traffic merges into the mainline on the RIGHT (same approach as the existing southbound slip ramp there). A right-hand merge is critical because of the heavily-used Duke Street interchange located just to the north, which serves the Landmark area. Requiring people to bomb across three lanes of traffic to exit helps nobody.

by Rich on Feb 15, 2011 10:08 am • linkreport

Forgot to make one more point in my final paragraph above: The reason why putting the slip ramp at the Turkeycock facility seems to make sense is two-fold. First, it means that the HOT-to-HOV changeover would occur at the same place in both the morning and afternoon, minimizing any potential confusion. Second, there's a bit more space there (assuming, again, that environmental regulations allow the ramp). The existing businesses located on either side of Shirley Highway between Edsall Road and the Beltway, plus the minimal space between carriageways, mean that there is a lot less room to fit in a ramp, and to accommodate a right-side merge, in that area.

by Rich on Feb 15, 2011 10:11 am • linkreport

It bothers me when an article makes a blanket statement in the summary and then backpedals in the full version. Myth number 3 isn't necessarily false, which you mention later in the article "The biggest question is, would 3 HOT lanes move more people than 2 HOV lanes? It's not totally clear" and "Foremost among those questions is this: Will these HOT lanes actually end up moving traffic more slowly?" Obviously VDOT hasn't done its homework to determine the answer, but you shouldn't pass off your educated guess as fact either.

I appreciate that you're working to educate everyone on what is really going on with the project, but you take a credibility hit when you can't back up points you pass off as fact.

by OddNumber on Feb 15, 2011 10:32 am • linkreport

OddNumber: They won't make it faster. They might keep it the same as before, and might make it slower. So it's still false that it will speed up travel. I'm going to be getting into this in the next part.

by David Alpert on Feb 15, 2011 10:39 am • linkreport

What happened to the mass transportation dream? Now there's going to be more blacktop, more cars, more fuel consumption. Walt Disney got it right with monorail. Put a stick in the ground (VDOT already owned the right-of-way), apply power, expand (vertically) existing parking lots, run a steady flow of people movers.
Frustrated in VA

by I_served on Feb 15, 2011 12:08 pm • linkreport

I_served: "What happened to the mass transportation dream? Now there's going to be more blacktop, more cars, more fuel consumption."

It got flattened under the reality of the situation. Auto culture has been dominant in most for the country since the 50's, if not the 30's. Don't know what it's going to take to change that...look at the disdain most people treat cyclists and transit users with. That, and industry (auto, oil, highway, trucking, real estate) works with government to keep it things auto and highway centered.

Don't worry, auto advocates keep telling us we're finding more and more oil all the time, that climate change is a myth, and that our environment has never been in better shape!! :p

by Jake T. on Feb 15, 2011 1:13 pm • linkreport

The HOT lane proposal is far from perfect, but it has enjoyed bipartisan support that dates all the way back to the mid 90s. I agree that we need to invest in our infrastructure and I further believe that private/public partnerships are an innovative way of tackling the economic challenges associated with these projects.

Have Arlington officials been unnecessarily maligned? Perhaps. It's no coincidence, however that they always find themselves at the center of controversy - whether we're talking about HOT lanes or widening 66 inside the beltway. They hold these projects hostage with frivolous lawsuits and misplaced rhetoric. If you listen to Chris Zimmerman during a recent TBD interview, you'd think the HOT lanes were going through his backyard.

The reality is, if Virginia is to remain at the forefront of the economic recovery and entice new companies (and jobs) to the region, we need to invest in our infrastructure (roads, bridges, tunnels). If over the road, market based, tolling helps pay for that - great! No one's being forced to use it and it means the State doesn't have to raise revenue (taxes) to pay for it. Every Governor (both Dems and GOP) since Doug Wilder has endorsed this project.

I agree the contract with Fluor needs scrutiny, but we have to work with what we have. We can't rip up all the asphalt and turn NOVA into EPCOT. CE or no CE, one way or another the road always goes through.

by PFFX_res on Feb 15, 2011 1:24 pm • linkreport

PFFX: if toll revenue WAS going to support it, your 3rd paragraph would make more sense. As it is, a not-insignificant chunk of VDOT money *IS* going to these HO/T lane projects. The Beltway HO/T lanes got something to the tune of $400 million from the state. No word yet on how much state money will go into the 95/395 lanes.

by Froggie on Feb 15, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

I can tell you as an PWC Parkway/"Horner Road" HOV lot user, driver and slugger: If VDOT did any analysis at ALL they would realize if they spent 1/20th of this money doubling the parking garaage/lots along the I-95/395 corridor and kept parking free they could remove 2-3 TIMES the cars they remove today. Our lot is full by 7AM!!! Double the parking and you'd easily fill it up by 9AM. HOT is a farce! Every PWC slugger and every driver knows it.

by Don on Feb 15, 2011 5:29 pm • linkreport

Finally, a voice of reason instead of Dr. Gridlock's incessant pandering to the HOT lane advocates. The last study I read said HOT lanes are losses to the companies that build them - they don't provide enough income to cover costs. So VA is out a ton of money. Thank goodness Arlington came to the rescue of the HOV lanes on the federal highway inside the beltway, I-95. HOT lanes would definitely have made that slog much longer too. Traffic now flows at a pretty steady 80 mph, and the HOT lanes are promising a 55 mph speed, tops. Makes me wonder whose palms Fluor is greasing to try to get that prime bit of real estate.

by VA Commuter on Feb 15, 2011 11:45 pm • linkreport

A minor point perhaps, but I understand that the I-395 express lanes were not built as bus or HOV lanes. If they had been designed as bus lanes, I suspect that some of the ramps would be in different locations. They were built as general-purpose lanes but before they were open to traffic, a far-sighted Northern Virginia Transportation Commission pressed for them to become bus lanes, and a far-sighted Virginia Department of Highways (yes, highways) agreed. Over the years, carpools, vanpools and motorcycles gained access, the occupancy threshold was lowered from four persons to three, and the HOV hours changed to some extent. Except for the section from the Pentagon into DC, buses have continued to enjoy priority in the peak hours and peak direction. The Pentagon-to-DC segment had HOV priority but it was taken away while a section of the road was being reconstructed (Case Bridge, as I recall) and has not yet been reinstated.

by Mark on Feb 16, 2011 9:50 am • linkreport

We now have the HOT lanes in Georgia, the fight has begun. How have the newer lanes in VA been accepted and how do you feel they will work in the future?

by Howard Rodgers on Oct 22, 2011 5:19 pm • linkreport

David - you forgot one true - false test!!! How could you?

please add - Arlington County named state employees as individuals in this lawsuit, thereby marking them for life as being named defendants in a Civil Rights lawsuit. Please add so your readers are aware.

Thanks.

by South Awwlington on Mar 22, 2012 7:46 am • linkreport

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