Greater Greater Washington

HOT lanes and the Arlington lawsuit, part 2: Slow down

The facile claims of many leaders and a number of news reports have fed misconceptions about the Virginia HOT lanes project. The biggest danger of all with this project is that it's very likely to slow down, not speed up, existing carpoolers and buses.


Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

Myth 3: The HOT lanes will speed up travel in the 95/395 corridor.

Right now, traffic generally moves swiftly in the HOV lanes, giving sluggers and bus riders a quick ride to the Pentagon, downtown, and other major job centers.

Once Transurban takes over control of the lanes, they will understandably want to maximize their profit. The more people pay a toll, the more money they make. The more cars enter the lanes, of course, the slower traffic will move. However, as long as the lanes are moving even moderately faster than the often very crowded free lanes, enough people will pay tolls.

Therefore, Transurban's natural profit motive will be to fill up the lanes as much as possible, but only until traffic slows down to the point where people stop paying for the extra benefit. If that means that the carpools and buses are driving 10 miles per hour slower than they do today, well, those carpools and buses aren't their customers. They're not paying tolls. So who cares?

Arlington asked VDOT to include a provision in the contract forcing Transurban to manage the road to keep traffic flowing at the speed limit, 55 inside the Beltway and 65 outside. But VDOT refused.

Instead, they lowered the target speed to 45 miles per hour. That's the lowest permitted for a "transit facility" receiving federal funding, which 95/395 HOV lanes qualify as because of the high volume of buses.

In short, with this project, the state of Virginia is planning to lower the speed of travel on 95 and 395 in the special lanes.

If each bus takes longer to travel up and down 95 and 395, Northern Virginia governments will have to buy more buses and pay people to drive them at huge cost. That dwarfs any money Arlington has spent on this lawsuit. It'll also make transit a less appealing mode of travel, cutting down on ridership.

Myth 4: Arlington sued "rather than press for solutions."

The Washington Post knew about this and other problems. That didn't stop them from penning a bizarre editorial last Friday:

There were legitimate questions about the project, including whether solo drivers would clog the so-called high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and what to do decades from now if the project's engineering, traffic or financial projections turn out to have been miscalculated. After all, the state would cede control of the project to the private partnership, potentially leaving taxpayers will little recourse.

Rather than press for solutions, however, Arlington did its best to halt progress, and it succeeded.

In other words, it's unseemly for a county to sue to block a road project no matter how intransigent the state has been or how many big problems crop up with the project's structure. The overwhelming need to build roads, no matter the cost, trumps all.

But as letters from county officials bear out, Arlington avidly tried to press for solutions. The problem was that VDOT ignored them and the Bush Administration gave them a Categorical Exclusion, granting a free pass to ignore those questions.

Pressing for solutions is exactly what this letter from Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria was doing. It asked for specific answers to very specific questions, including the bus speeds and many more.

Myth 5: VDOT didn't move ahead with the lanes because the lawsuit was blocking their ability to proceed.

The Post editorial also claimed Arlington "succeeded" in blocking progress. Did it really?

State officials told us back in 2009 why they stopped the project:

"This is not a good time to be bringing forward a project like this," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, who said the cost of debt financing and the amount of equity required would have been too great to immediately move forward.

He said community concerns about traffic on Seminary Road and at the Shirlington rotary also weighed into the decision.

The lawsuit appears nowhere in Homer's explanation. In fact, the lawsuit hadn't even been filed at the time. Virginia didn't move ahead because the financing didn't work.

And InsideNova reported, "Homer also stated that planners will take additional time to examine concerns posed by Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax."

Unfortunately, that's not what they did. Faced with a fiscally impossible project, local and state Republican leaders instead spent a year taking political potshots at liberal Arlington to score personal points.

A big part of the project's fiscal difficulty came from the design inside the Beltway. There, given the dense neighborhoods the road travels through, the design called for adding a third lane inside the footprint of the existing roadway.

That would have narrowed lanes, removed shoulders, and violated Interstate standards in a number of ways that would have required federal waivers. It also would have created some expensive construction work.

By cutting out the 395 portion, VDOT didn't appease Arlington. What they did was to delete the expensive piece of their project, giving the rest more of a reasonable chance for financing.

Americans want better transportation but don't want to pay for it. HOT lanes are a clever gimmick to get something built without paying for it, but it doesn't quite work. Except where roads had been built with giant medians ready-made for HOT lanes, the tolls still don't cover construction costs.

Myth 6: Fairfax and Prince William Counties support the project.

Fairfax does conditionally support it, but has many concerns as outlined in the above letter. Prince William passed a resolution opposing the project as proposed, and actually considered joining the lawsuit.

"Some are worried about giving false hope to commuters that the suit will be successful, but from my perspective, we need to proceed," Prince William Chairman Corey Stewart told the WBJ. "If there is a chance of slowing them down or reducing the negative impact, we have to do everything we can."

That's right, back in 2009 people were discussing this issue based on the merits, since a Democratic governor was pushing it and other Democratic leaders opposing it. Then, suddenly a Republican governor got elected and it turned into a partisan issue.

Now it's Fairfax Republican Pat Herrity and ultra-conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli leading the charge, even after the lawsuit was dropped. Scoring political points was too much of a temptation even once the issue became moot.

The principal criticism of the lawsuit has always been that the lawsuit calls people racists. Herrity charged, "[Arlington] even resorted to claims of racism and sued a federal worker for personal damagesa dangerous precedent for all our federal, state and local government workers just doing their jobs. And because of Arlington's actions, the commonwealth is pulling the plug on the HOT lanes project inside the Beltway."

We already know that last part is false. What about the rest of it? That'll be the subject for our last and final installment.

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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. 

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Arlington asked VDOT to include a provision in the contract forcing Transurban to manage the road to keep traffic flowing at the speed limit, 55 inside the Beltway and 65 outside. But VDOT refused.

FWIW, the speed limit in the I-95/395 HOV lanes is 65 mph from a point just south of the Pentagon Mixing Bowl interchange (specifically, from just south of the ramp to/from the part VA-27 that runs past the Pentagon) all the way down to the southern end of the express lanes near Dumfries. Only the small portion from the 14th Street Bridge to that spot is posted at 55. (I remember when they raised it to 65. I didn't ever expect to see VDOT posting a 65-mph speed limit inside the Beltway.)

by Rich on Feb 15, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

$1 billion.

Funded under the public-private partnership, how much is VDOT going to pay?

For the Beltway HOT lanes it was $400 million.

Where is tranurban getting the money? They make a good living on tolls in Australia, but this business model is untested. Their line of credit on the beltway is at junk status.

by charlie on Feb 15, 2011 1:01 pm • linkreport


I would disagree with your statement that "traffic generally moves swiftly in the HOV lanes". As a joyfully formerly daily busride on 395, I would say that at best, it occasionally moves swiftly. Because of the silly Prius exclusion and rampant law-breaking, probably 40% of the vehicles on my stretch of 395 had 2 or fewer bodies (not 3 or more). It was a pet peeve of mine because while house sellers in Fairlington (Arlington) love to claim that the area is "minutes from DC", it depends how many minutes you are talking about.

by Ren on Feb 15, 2011 1:50 pm • linkreport

"HOT lanes are a clever gimmick to get something built without paying for it" -- Not technically true: HOT lanes are not necessarily just built to produce revenue to offset construction. Public-private partnerships are. HOT lanes don't require privatization, or the additional lanes, that were both a part of the 395 project. Washington State shows this with its SR167 project, where the state retains the revenue and sets prices for optimum mobility, not optimum total revenue.

by bilbao on Feb 15, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

Charlie - if the Beltway HOT Lanes contract is any guide, where private funding was less than $300 million of the 2.4 billion cost, than the junk status shouldn't make that much of a difference. But of course Democrats are also in charge of the federal DOT for now....so those federal susidies for corporate HOT Lanes they got a few years ago have dried up.

by stevek_fairfax on Feb 15, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

@stevek_fairfax; the junk status is paramount.

Let's assume the numbers are correct and the ratios stay the same. Say about 100 million in state money, about 900 from transurban.

Transurban raised about 2.86 billion to buy proprieties in Virginia. Some large percentage of that has been spent. Their LOC is also not strong. I mean, it is with a Portuguese bank.

Where is transurban going to raise this money?

These deals depended on the ability of private companies to issue 99 year debt -- which lowered their cost of capital.

ANy buyers now?

by charlie on Feb 15, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

Ultra liberal Alpert jumped the gun in this series by including Myth #7.

I politely waited until he finished Part 2 to see how he could possibly argue that Arlington was in fact not crying racism.

From the lawsuit [HOT LANES] "encourage and enable a financially-able, privileged class of suburban and rural, primarily Caucasian residents from Stafford and Spotsylvania counties operating single occupancy vehicles ("SOV") unimpeded access on toll lanes."

In fact the County's representatives are the racists. Pot meet kettle.

So Alpert's argument is that #7 is a Myth because.... because he says it is.

Good job Davey.

by TGEoA on Feb 15, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

TGEoA, please make your arguments without resorting to personal attacks like making up diminutives of my name and calling me "ultra-liberal" (many social service advocates would disagree with that one). Your argument will be more effective if you make points rationally instead of seeming to be ranting in a childish way.

by David Alpert on Feb 15, 2011 3:13 pm • linkreport

Charlie - I was trying to be sarcastic about the junk status not making much of a difference, because on the 495 HOT lanes, Transurban only raised less than 300 mil in private equity out of the total cost of the project. The rest was state money (400 mil) and federally-subsidised loans and bonds (around 1.7 billion). Wasn't directing the sarcasm at you at all, just at the fact that with Democrats in charge of the federal DOT, the HOT Lanes pork isn't there for them. Now as to whether there is other pork available, that is a matter of debate. But my point was HOT lanes became federally subsidised during the Bush administration.

by stevek_fairfax on Feb 15, 2011 3:25 pm • linkreport

@David

So what was the point of labeling Cooch as an ultra-conservative? I'm sure there are plenty of right wingers who would disagree.

by TGEoA on Feb 15, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

@stevek_fairfax; yeah, when it comes to Transurban my sarcasm meter starts to melt.

between the junk status, new management, and core profitability in Australia, I would not be surprised if Transurban was trying to sell their US vehicle.

by charlie on Feb 15, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

The quoted part still stands.

by Lou on Feb 15, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

One more point. Alpert tries to make this seem like the Republican Bush administration forced this issue by granting the exclusion.

Sure it was granted... at the request of the Democratic Kaine Administration.

But it is so much easier to say "Bush baaaaad" and draw partisan lines.

by TGEoA on Feb 15, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert - Thanks for responding to my comment in Part 1 and addressing "myth 3" in Part 2. I will admit I am not sure I followed all of your logic, but my understanding is that toll fees will be kept artificially low to maximize commuter usage and eventually bring HOT lanes traffic speed into equilibrium with the free lanes at a slower speed than the existing HOV lanes and thus defeating the utility. However, it is in Transurban's economic interests to use cost controls to avoid the equilibrium conditions with the free lanes for this very reason.

As to the larger question about speed in the 95/395 corridor (including both free and HOT lanes), I think it is still an open question as to determining that overall speed will be decreased. If the HOT lanes experience a small slow down, but the free lanes significantly speed up then the net would be faster speed.

by OddNumber on Feb 15, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport

@ TGEoA: Sure it was granted... at the request of the Democratic Kaine Administration.

But it is so much easier to say "Bush baaaaad" and draw partisan lines.

Timmie, Obama buddy, DNC something and our next Senator.

by Jasper on Feb 15, 2011 4:06 pm • linkreport

In addition to the issues David raised, I fear that we will be footing most of the bill on the HOT lanes. Gov McDonnell's borrow and spend transportation package (SB1446/HB2527) borrows $3 billion and creates a $1.5 billion fund for PPTA projects. I think he expects to put far more of our tax dollars into each PPTA project. On top of this his proposed Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank is designed to give 2-3 percent interest loans to private toll road builders. Yet, Sec Connaughton said that the investment return for the PPTA consortia is at least 14 percent. The upfront cash and the very low interest loans are on top of the 75 years worth of toll revenues granted to the companies. And to make matters worse, they propose taking revenues from education, public safety and other programs along with VDOT maintenance funds (the "audit") to capitalize the bank.

by Stewart Schwartz on Feb 15, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport

@Stewart Schwartz; oh-oh.

What's to prevent Transurban from getting a new 3% loan from the VATIB to pay off the 5 junk bond loans they have now?

by charlie on Feb 15, 2011 5:04 pm • linkreport

Geezh, 45 mph? down from 65 mph posted and 80 mph real time speed? I didn't know that. Dave, you're a great reporter. I think I heart you. :)

by VA Commuter on Feb 15, 2011 11:55 pm • linkreport

If that means that the carpools and buses are driving 10 miles per hour slower than they do today, well, those carpools and buses aren't their customers. They're not paying tolls. So who cares?

Maybe then a part of the solution is to give the carpoolers and some 'bargaining clout' by charging them. I.e., Not exempting the carpoolers from the toll (they already get a break just by doubling up). This would encentivize those carpoolers who aren't in a hurry to use the regular lanes ... and thereby leave the HOT free for those who are ... As is the intent of these lanes. (Buses are few enough that it's probably not worth the trouble of trying to incentivie them. Although, in theory, it also holds that a tourist bus might be less inclined to spend the extra bucks for the HOT lanes than would say a commuter bus.)

by Lance on Feb 16, 2011 8:47 am • linkreport

@Lance

...and now you've turned HOT lanes into actual Lexus Lanes instead of, you know, something that encourages people to produce less pollution and reduce congestion through carpooling.

The carpoolers' bargaining clout is that they're turning three cars into one and making your commute faster by reducing congestion.

by MLD on Feb 16, 2011 8:51 am • linkreport

Lance's proposal is essentially what Maryland is building on I-95 northeast of Baltimore (and has proposed on I-270 from where it narrows to two lanes per side on up to Frederick): "Express Toll Lanes." Another way to think of ETLs is as HOT lanes without the "HO" aspect--that is, there is no exemption for carpools, so if you want to use the express lanes, you pay a toll, the amount of which varies in the same way it does in HOT lanes.

I suppose one might argue that making everyone pay INCREASES the "HO" aspect of the lanes, of course. :-)

I believe no US jurisdiction has opened any ETLs yet--Maryland is to be the first. There are quite a few HOT lanes around, but no full-time "Express Toll Lanes."

Regardless of what happens with the HOT project, I think anyone who thinks HOV on Shirley Highway is not effective at taking cars off the road should drive down to the Prince William Parkway interchange at lunchtime some weekday afternoon. There is a large park-and-ride facility there. 95% of the cars parked there belong to slugs who parked and got rides from other people. (The same thing is true for the Metrorail, BTW, if you look at how many cars are parked at Vienna, Franconia-Springfield, or Branch Avenue, to name but three--consider how it would be if you then dumped all those cars onto the road as well.)

by Rich on Feb 16, 2011 9:01 am • linkreport

What Lance suggests and Rich discusses is, simply put, toll lanes. Period.

by Froggie on Feb 16, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

A major reason for not switching to the Lance/Rich toll lanes has something to do with federal money being available for roads that have a HOV/buslane.

by charlie on Feb 16, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

Lance/Rich toll lanes

I'm not sure why you're putting my name on the idea. I didn't suggest that Virginia's HOT lanes should instead be converted into toll-only lanes ("Express Toll Lanes"), which is what Lance suggested. I was just addressing his comment. I don't really have an opinion on Maryland's Express Toll Lane project on I-95 because I don't live in the Baltimore area and because when I drive northeast, I tend to avoid I-95 through there due to the roadwork and the congestion. (I'll be interested in seeing how the project works out when the lanes open, of course.) I simply thought it was important to note that what he was suggesting is in fact something that is being tried somewhere not too far from the DC area (although the construction is not yet complete).

Do a Google search for "I-95 Maryland express toll lanes" if you want to find out more about it.

by Rich on Feb 16, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

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