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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.

Transit


Walking and transit score high in Virginia's transportation rankings

Scores that evaluate transportation projects in Virginia recently came out, and many of the highest belong to projects focused on walking and transit. That's because they provide the most bang for taxpayers' bucks.


West Broad Street and Oak Street in downtown Falls Church. Image from Google Maps.

In Northern Virginia, projects that focused on improving walking conditions and transit service came out on top in statewide rankings for cost-effectiveness. These included:

  • Sidewalk work in downtown Falls Church between Park Avenue and Broad Street (#2 statewide)
  • More marketing of transit and carpooling in the I-66/Silver Line corridor (#3)
  • Improving crossings at several intersections on Broad Street in downtown Falls Church, including at Oak Street (pictured above) (#8)
Passed in 2014, a state law commonly known as HB2 requires Virginia's Department of Transportation to use an objective and quantitative system to score transportation projects. The idea is to make planning more transparent, but high score doesn't guarantee funding nor does a low score preclude it.

In the most recent rankings, 287 transportation projects from across the state received two different scores, one based on the total projected benefit and one based on the benefit divided by the total funding request.

Each of the projects above would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, while most other projects would cost many times that amount. For total project benefits, the addition of High-Occupancy/Toll lanes to I-66 outside the Beltway has the highest score, but it requires a $600 million public investment.

Here's more detail about the law

Virginia law requires that "congestion relief" be the primary metric in scoring projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Scores also account for a project's environmental impacts, how it fits with local land use plans, and what it might do for economic development.

Three agencies developed the evaluation system: Virginia Department of Transportation, the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The agencies have posted a wealth of data on the HB2 website. You can search for projects in various ways, including by jurisdiction. Data points such as whether or not a project has bicycle facilities, and how it is coordinated with nearby development projects, are posted in an easily navigable format.

What do you think of the analyses? Is there a project in your area that scores higher or lower than you would have expected?

Roads


For I-66, outside-the-beltway lawmakers say "toss the facts, widen baby widen"

A group of Virginia state legislators from outside the beltway are urging Governor McAuliffe to widen I-66 inside the beltway, rather than go forward with VDOT's transit and tolls proposal. But years of data say the multimodal proposal would be more effective.


I-66. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

What's happening with I-66

Over the course of 2015, the Virginia Department of Transportation settled on a plan to change how I-66 inside the beltway operates.

Instead of the current configuration where the entire highway is HOV-only in the peak direction during rush hour, the peak direction would become HOT, meaning single-occupant cars could travel on it if they pay a toll, while HOV cars remain free.

In exchange for letting single-occupant cars onto a highway they're currently not allowed to use, toll revenue would go to improving transit.

Then, after a few years of operating like that, VDOT would study how traffic changed, and either widen I-66 or opt not to.

That plan had been gaining steam all through 2015, as VDOT did the planning to take it from rough concept to fully fleshed out project.

Some just want a wider highway

Then the Virginia General Assembly began its 2016 session, and a prominent bill proposes to kill the project, replacing it with a straight-up widening of I-66. The bill's author, western Fairfax / eastern Loudoun delegate Jim LeMunyon, consistently advocates for bigger highways, and has a history of trying to cut transit and bike/ped funding.

Governor McAuliffe, who supports the transit and tolls plan, says he won't veto the bill if it reaches his desk on the back of support from Northern Virginia's delegates.

That prompted a group of seven other lawmakers, all from the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, to urge VDOT to drop the transit and tolls plan, and support widening only.

No lawmakers from inside the beltway, where this plan would actually take place, signed on to the letter.

Analysis says the transit and tolls plan is better

VDOT's transit and tolls plan has been in the works for 13 years. Studies in 2003, 2009, and 2012 built towards the 2015 proposal, all of which determined a widening-only approach wouldn't work very well.

Most recently, in 2015 VDOT ran three projects through a sophisticated computer model called "HB-599," to see how they would affect traffic congestion. The three projects:

  • "Transform66 Inside," the transit and tolls proposal
  • "Widen I-66 Inside," a widening-only alternate
  • "Transform66 Outside," an entirely separate project outside the beltway, that's less controversial.
The outcome: For inside the beltway, the transit and tolls proposal is a far more effective project than widening only. It reduces congestion on I-66 much, much more than widening only would. Never mind the added mobility and benefits to car-free urbanites. Simply in the terms of reducing highway congestion, the model says the transit and tolls proposal is better.


Image by VDOT.

Be objective, unless being objective doesn't produce what you want

Ironically, the HB-599 process is Jim LeMunyon's own brainchild. It's the result of a bill he sponsored in 2012 to force Northern Virginia to objectively evaluate the congestion reduction effects of major projects.

But now the HB-599 results are in, and alas, they aren't what LeMunyon hoped for. According to LeMunyon's own hand-picked metrics, the transit and tolls project is better than just widening.

But none of that matters to the outer suburban politicians who just want bigger highways. For them, I-66 seems to be a case of "Damn the numbers! Widen baby, widen!"

What will happen?

Until a bill to block tolls becomes law, VDOT is continuing to move forward with the transit and tolls plan. If the plan stays alive, construction will begin this summer, and the project will open in the summer of 2017.

With Governor McAuliffe threatening to withhold a veto, some of Northern Virginia's lawmakers will need to come out in support of the transit and tolls plan. Virginians can contact their lawmakers via the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Pedestrians


Zig zag road stripes can get drivers to pay more attention

At 11 points in northern Virginia, the familiar straight dashed lines on the road give way to a series of zig zags. The unusual markings, the result of a project from the Virginia Department of Transportation, are meant to alert drivers to be cautious where the W&OD Trail intersects with the road—and bicyclists and pedestrians frequently cross.


Virginia DOT installed these zig zag markings to caution drivers approaching the intersection of a popular walking and biking trail. Image from VDOT.

After a year-long study of this striping treatment, Virginia DOT officials say the markings are effective and should become part of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices—the playbook for American street designers.

VDOT found the zig zag markings slowed average vehicle speeds, increased motorist awareness of pedestrians and cyclists, and increased the likelihood that drivers would yield. They also noted that the effects of the design change didn't wear off once motorists became used to the it—they still slowed down a year after installation.


This photo shows another style of zig zag pavement marking tested in Virginia. Image from VDOT.

VDOT says the results indicate that zig zag markings are a more cost-effective solution for conflict points between trails and high-speed roads than the current treatments: flashing beacons placed above the road or off to the side.

The zig zag concept was imported from Europe. It is currently used in only two other locations in North America: Hawaii and Ottawa, Ontario. It was one of more than a dozen European traffic management techniques VDOT zeroed in on to test locally.


The zig zag markings reduced motorist speeds approaching the trail at Sterling Road by about 5 mph, according to VDOT. The effect remained strong over time. Graph from Streetsblog.

The W&OD trail is a popular route for both recreation and commuting in the DC metro area. Between 2002 and 2008, there were 21 collisions involving cyclists and two involving pedestrians along the trail, which intersects with major roads at 70 points along its 45-mile path in Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia.

The effect of the zig zag markings was measured using speed radars over the course of a year. Feedback from motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians was also collected using online surveys. While the survey did not come from a random sample, 65 percent of drivers said they were more aware because of the markings and 48 percent said they liked them. The zig zags were also popular with cyclists; 71 percent said the markings affected driver behavior.

Said one respondent: "Drivers rarely stopped before the markings were installed. Since installation, they stop much more often."

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.

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