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Why Arlington might not sue Virginia over I-395 this time

This is part two in a series the 395 HOT lanes. Read part 1 to understand what happened the last time they were proposed.

VDOT has proposed converting HOV lanes on I-395 into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The first time this proposal came up, Arlington County stopped it with a lawsuit. But Arlington seems receptive this time. What's different?


Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

New plan differences

Unlike last time, VDOT has committed to doing an environmental assessment from the start. The agency is also doing a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) study to "identify transit, carpool, vanpool and other demand strategies that can improve travel along the corridor."

The proposal includes "guaranteed funding" for new and enhanced transit service and carpooling incentives, though the amount of funding is still under negotiation. Unlike the prior plan, it leaves the Shirlington Circle interchange as-is and would keep the currently under-construction Seminary Road access ramp restricted to HOV use.

Questions remain about design, transit, and bicycle accommodations

Despite the changes to the proposal, Virginia transporation officials still need to answer many of the questions and concerns raised last time around and work to mitigate any potential negative impacts from the HOT lanes.

While the proposal adds capacity with a third lane, it also allows cars with fewer than three occupants, meaning additional traffic. Will this speed up or slow down the existing HOV and bus traffic? Slowing down HOV traffic would lessen the incentive to carpool. And slowing down buses would lessen the incentive to use public transit, as well as raising the operating and capital costs for local transit agencies.

One of those agencies, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, lost $1.5 million in federal funding when the 95 HOT lanes opened. What impact will the conversion have on transit funding for other local transit agencies?

There are other significant issues with safety, accommodating travelers without cars, and working the plan in with other transportation plans in the area.

VDOT claims that construction will not require taking of any residential properties or significant rights-of-way. Other than the construction of new sound walls, officials believe they can fit the third lane into the existing footprint of the HOV lanes. But that could require making the shoulders narrower or even removing them, which could impact safety, access for emergency vehicles, and the reliability of travel times.

It seems like every major highway expansion, from the 495 HOT lanes to the Intercounty Connector includes a major transit element, and yet they rarely seem to materialize or are quickly phased out. It's unknown how much money this plan guarantees for transit and TDM and who will determine how it is spent.

Likewise, the plan misses an opportunity to add to Northern Virginia's trail network, like the existing Custis Trail proposed trails along I-66. And it's unclear whether the plan will do anything to mitigate tree loss, which was a major issue with the I-95 Express lanes.

Virginia learned a tough lesson with the existing 95 HOT lanes: Eventually all HOT lanes have to end, and the merge situation when they do can create major backups. The 395 HOT lane extension would end at or near the already-congested 14th Street Bridge. How will VDOT avoid exacerbating an already ugly situation there and can they coordinate with DC's slow-moving initiative to add a network of HOT lanes within DC, including on the 14th Street Bridge?

The way the contract is written gives Virginia an incentive to discourage carpooling in the HOT lanes. The 395 HOT lanes will be governed by the existing contract the commonwealth has with Fluor-Transurban which requires Virginia to reimburse the firm if the facility carries "too many" HOV users.

I-395 and I-66 are very different

Comparisons between the plans for I-66 inside the beltway and I-395 HOT lane plans are easy to make; both would convert existing HOV lanes into HOT lanes and both would provide funding for transit. Beyond that, however, they differ quite significantly.

I-395 has, and would continue to have un-tolled, unrestricted lanes in addition to the HOT lanes. I-66 would consist of only HOT lanes. The I-395 HOT lanes would charge tolls at all times; the I-66 lanes would only charge during rush hour, and only in the peak direction.

The I-395 HOV lanes are already HOV-3 only; the I-66 lanes are HOV-2. The I-395 HOT lanes will be paid for by a private partner; the I-66 HOT lanes will be paid for by Virginia.

The cumulative effect of the differences in cost, alternatives options and existing HOV level shift the conversation being had about effectiveness and impact on surrounding jurisdictions enough that support or opposition for one doesn't necessarily translate into similar feelings on the other.

The plan is more predictable and it gives the local governments a say

The changes in the latest HOT lanes proposal appear tailor-made to reduce push-back and ease approval by making the effects of the proposal easier to predict and understand. It requires almost no land acquisition, changes the existing highway interchanges as little as possible, uses an existing vendor under an existing contract, commits to funding transit and TDM, and will include an environmental process from the outset.

The environmental process ensures that the public and the jurisdictions will have the leverage they need to ensure their questions get answered. Until they are, however, we can't know whether this proposal will help or harm. If Arlington sues again, or some other jurisdiction does, it likely won't be because they can't get their questions answered, it will be because they don't like the answers.

What question do you have? What should the public and jurisdictions be certain of before deciding whether to move forward with HOT lanes on 395?

Roads


395's HOV lanes may become HOT lanes. Here's what happened last time that possibility arose.

It looks like the HOV lanes on I-395 may soon become High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The first time this proposal came up, Arlington County stopped it with a lawsuit. Why did Arlington sue, and is this new plan likely to meet the same fate?


Map of existing and proposed Express Lanes. Map by 395 Express Lanes Project.

A key commuter route, 395 carries traffic into DC from the Beltway. South of Edsall Road, which is just north of the Beltway, 395 has three reversible HOT lanes that continue south onto I-95. North of Edsall, 395 currently has two reversible HOV-3 lanes (meaning they're only available to vehicles with three passengers or more).

The new plan, which the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) announced in November, is to widen 395's existing two reversible HOV-3 lanes to three, and allow non-HOV vehicles to use them in exchange for a toll. The amount of the toll would dynamically fluctuate based on demand in order to maintain the free-flow of traffic in the lanes. Flour-Transurban, the private company that operates 395's existing HOT lanes, would run the new ones.

The original plan

In 2005, VDOT planned to convert the current HOV lanes on 395 to HOT lanes when the I-95 HOT lanes opened. VDOT and Fluor-Transurban proposed adding the third lane and making all three HOT lanes. The proposal added an access points at Seminary Road, added an access point at Shirlington Circle along with a major re-configuration of that area to speed traffic, and re-worked the interchanges with Washington Boulevard and Eads Street near the Pentagon.

From the start, Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William counties, as well as the City of Alexandria, all voiced concerns about the project. They were:

  • Would this speed or slow existing HOV traffic and buses? The HOT lanes would certainly carry more vehicles, but would they actually move more people or would they simply shift the same number of people into more vehicles?
  • Would adding new access points and reconfiguring Shirlington Circle dump additional traffic onto neighborhood streets and undermine Shirlington's efforts to be a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented place?
  • Would conflicts arise when the state trusted a private, profit-seeking operator with managing the road?
VDOT declined to provide answers, and the Federal Highway Administration cleared the agency to move forward without formally studying what, exactly, the impact of adding HOT lanes would be. In response, Arlington sued, hoping to force an environmental review.

Arlington prevailed through several initial rounds of procedural jockeying. While Arlington officials continued settlement negotiations behind the scenes, Republican lawmakers took potshots at the predominantly-Democratic county. Despite sharing similar concerns, Alexandria never signed on to Arlington's lawsuit, realizing that they could share any good outcomes of the litigation without actually having to share Arlington's legal bill, which ultimately topped $2 million.

In 2011, VDOT announced that it was dropping the original proposal and advancing a new proposal which led to what we have today. The HOV lanes north of Edsall Road remained as-is, a new HOV-only access ramp to Seminary Road went in to accommodate traffic from the BRAC military relocation, and the two HOV lanes south of Edsall became three HOT lanes. Most importantly, they did so through an environmental process culminating in an Environmental Assessment.

As a result of the new proposal, Arlington dropped its lawsuit without any final ruling on its merits. This didn't stop the General Assembly from punishing Arlington for bringing the lawsuit by revoking some of its taxing authority and withholding a portion of its transportation funding.

How is the new plan different than the old plan? Will Arlington sue again? We'll talk about it in tomorrow's post.

Roads


I-66 widening will happen soon whether it makes sense or not

Virginia Governor McAuliffe announced today that I-66 will become one lane wider eastbound inside the Beltway, from the Dulles Toll Road to Ballston. That changes previous plans to hold off on widening, to give transit and tolls a chance to ease congestion on their own.


Could only HOT lanes combined with transit and multimodal options have eased congestion on I-66? We'll never know. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

Until today, the plan was to allow single-occupancy vehicles to use I-66 in exchange for paying a toll, and to dedicate the toll revenue to transit and demand management. Then VDOT would study whether or not it was still necessary to widen the road.

However, Republican leaders in the Virginia General Assembly filed legislation to block that plan, and widen immediately instead.

The new compromise plan will immediately move forward with widening I-66 eastbound from the Dulles Toll Road to Fairfax Drive in Ballston. In exchange, Republican leaders will drop their opposition to the tolls and transit components.

One more compromise

McAullife's original tolling proposal had already been significantly compromised. His original plan called for tolls in both the peak and non-peak directions, and an immediate switch to HOV-3. Those proposals were axed months ago to appease Republican lawmakers outside the beltway.

What was theoretically finalized in late 2015 was converting the existing peak-direction HOV-2 lanes to HOT-2, an agreement to spend the majority of toll revenue on transit projects in the corridor, eliminating exemptions for hybrid cars, Dulles Airport traffic, and law-enforcement cars so that all single-driver cars had to pay the toll, and an agreement that Virginia would not widen I-66 without first studying the effects of the tolls and transit.

It's that final part, the agreement not to widen, that's now changing. The remainder of the 2015 deal, including tolling, dedicating most revenue to transit, and eliminating the various HOV exemptions, will continue.

Tolling is still expected to start in 2017, the same as the original timeline. It will take longer to build the new lane, but not much longer. The widening will likely be complete by late 2019, just prior to a planned sister project outside the beltway. The HOV-2 provisions will become HOV-3 both inside and outside the beltway in or around 2020.

The widening inside the beltway will cost $140 million.

This is a loss for Arlington, but there are silver linings

This new compromise is a blow to Arlington, which has long supported investments like transit, cycling, and transportation demand management as alternatives to widening I-66. It is also a blow to Virginia's move toward a more data-driven transportation decision-making process, as the lawmakers pushing for widening ignore data saying it's not necessary.

While Smart Growth advocates never like to see highways gets wider, there are some bright points in even this compromised proposal.

While induced demand causes most widened highways to fill back up with traffic quickly, I-66's tolls will adjust in price according to the level of congestion, which should fight that tendency. The widening will also require a thorough environmental review, giving the community a chance to discuss impacts to parks, trails, water quality, and more.

Crucial to the compromise is the fact that the majority of toll revenue will still be dedicated to transit and other multimodal improvements, and that HOV exemptions that currently make it easy for single-occupant cars to skirt the rules will be eliminated.

That said, serious concerns remain. The governor has stated that the $140 million is not being taken from any other project, but money doesn't just appear. Even if it hadn't been allocated to another project yet, it would have been eventually. What are we not getting because we're spending $140 million widening I-66?

McAuliffe's plan has been watered down several times already. Will Virginia stick to its guns now? Or will toll revenue eventually be stripped from transit? Will the planned move from HOT-2 to HOT-3 never materialize? Will tolls really follow the formula to rise with with traffic, or will political wrangling make tolls too cheap to be effective?

What do you think of the compromise? Is it better or worse than the status quo?

Roads


Why tolling I-66 is actually a good idea

Express toll lanes are coming to I-66. Some drivers accustomed to a free ride are upset at the idea, but tolls will help the highway run more smoothly and increase access for car drivers. Most importantly, they'll improve transit.


HOT lane on I-95. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

High Occupancy Toll lanesHOT lanes, as they're called—allow single-driver cars to use HOV lanes in exchange for paying a toll. Carpools and buses drive for free, while cars with only one person (or sometimes two people) pay.

Virginia plans to convert the existing lanes of I-66 inside the Beltway to HOT lanes by 2017. The state also plans to widen I-66 outside the Beltway with new HOT lanes by 2021.

Congestion pricing keeps HOT lanes moving

The toll price on HOT lanes varies based on how many cars are on the road.

The point isn't so much to make money, but is rather to manage how many cars are using the lanes. When there's little traffic, officials want to encourage drivers to use the lanes, so the toll is low. But when traffic rises, officials want to encourage drivers to travel some other way, so the tolls rise accordingly.

In theory, officials raise the toll rate to whatever level is necessary to keep traffic moving smoothly.

HOT lanes can lead to more, better transit, but there's a big "if"

One of the biggest problems with buses is that they're often stuck in the traffic congestion from cars. HOT lanes provide a way out. Since HOT lanes are supposed to be free-flowing, and since buses can use HOT lanes, tolls create defacto busways, giving buses a way to move along the highway at speed, even if the normal un-tolled lanes are jammed.

But buses can only benefit from HOT lanes if buses are present, and if there are enough of them to be a realistic, convenient option. Unfortunately, that's a big "if."

Past Virginia HOT lane projects on I-95 and the Beltway haven't delivered the bus service planners originally promised. Officials built the HOT lanes, celebrated what they accomplished for cars, and largely forgot about buses.

But it doesn't have to happen that way. In San Diego, for example, California state law requires the I-15 HOT lanes project to use toll revenue to directly fund high frequency bus service. That's a good model, and it can work on I-66.

The plan for I-66

Both the I-66 projects, inside and outside the Beltway, have elaborate plans for more bus service. If those plans actually happen, catching a bus to western Fairfax or Prince William County might become a much more quick and convenient possibility, with frequent all-day buses instead of only a few at rush hour.


Proposed bus service improvements in the I-66/US-50/US-29 corridor. Image from Virginia.

But to ensure transit benefits actually materialize on I-66, leaders will need to lock in guaranteed transit funding as part of the deal. The days of trusting Richmond to deliver are over, after the failures on I-95 and I-495.

Part of the problem on I-95 and I-495 is that a private company helped build the toll lanes, and in exchange gets to keep toll revenue as profit. That means the private company has a vested interest in limiting transit, because everyone who takes a bus is not paying a toll.

But on I-66, at least inside the Beltway, VDOT's plan is to operate the HOT lanes itself, without using a private company. And without a private company trying to profit, officials can reinvest toll revenue straight into transit.

That's exactly what VDOT says they want to do. As long as they guarantee that promise with a binding legal contract, it's a good deal for transit. Much better than if VDOT went the traditional 20th Century route and simply widened I-66, with no thought to transit at all.

HOT lanes delay widening

To be sure, without a tolling plan, pressure to widen I-66 in Arlington would mount significantly.

Arlington has long opposed any widening, arguing that wider highways ultimately result in more drivers and more congestion. Under VDOT's current plan, widening won't be on the table until after 2025, after the bus improvements are in place.

But Fairfax County is already pressuring VDOT to widen sooner. VDOT's answer has been to try tolls and transit and see how they work, then widen later if it's still necessary.

Without the option of tolls and transit, that widening pressure would likely overwhelm decision makers.

Roads


Virginia pressures Maryland to add Legion Bridge HOT lanes

Virginia transportation officials plan to recommend a new strategy to address travel between Maryland and Virginia: Pressure Maryland into extending Virginia's Beltway HOT lanes across the American Legion Bridge, all the way to I-270.


American Legion Bridge. Photo from Bing Maps.

Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue is today presenting the results of a Potomac River crossings study to Virginia's top transportation planning group, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB). The study assessed conditions at existing bridges and makes recommendations for future changes.

The main recommendation: Extend the Beltway HOT lanes 6.5 miles from their existing terminus north of Tysons Corner, over the American Legion Bridge, and up to the foot of the I-270 spur in Montgomery County.

The CTB will have until September to digest the findings and either adopt or not adopt Donohue's recommendation.

No matter what the CTB adopts, the ultimate decision to build or not build anything over the Legion Bridge will rest with Maryland. Maryland owns the bridge, and most of the length of the proposed HOT lanes extension. Virginia can apply pressure and offer a partnership, but can't force the project.

Why HOT lanes?

The HOT lanes proposal is a compromise. It's not the pure transit-only plan that smart growth advocates have pushed, but it's also not the outer beltway that highway advocates wanted.

HOT lanes give highway advocates a big road project, and throw transit advocates a bone with the potential for express buses (Montgomery County's BRT plan talks about transit over the Legion Bridge). Nobody gets exactly what they want, but nobody's worst nightmares happen either.


Potential cross-Potomac bus route. Image from WMATA.

Virginia's proposal to bring HOT lanes to I-66 is moving very rapidly. If Maryland decides to play along, this could move rapidly too.

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