- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A project billed as a radical transportation improvement for the congested D.C. region got its formal start Tuesday, as officials celebrated the construction of express lanes on the Capital Beltway.

“The Beltway is really the Main Street of this part of Northern Virginia, and it was never designed for the volume it now has,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat, said at the symbolic groundbreaking. “Adding capacity to that Main Street is critical. Creating choices for our commuters is critical.”

The planned lanes — two in each direction on the Virginia section of the Beltway — are known as high-occupancy-toll, or HOT, lanes. They will be free to vehicles carrying three or more people. Anyone else who wants to ride on them must pay a toll, which will fluctuate according to demand.

The idea is to keep traffic running smoothly all the time. The lanes’ private operator will be allowed to set the tolls as high as necessary to avoid congestion. Barbara W. Reese, Virginia’s deputy secretary of transportation, said tolls are expected to average about $1 a mile with the average trip being 5 to 6 miles.

Critics of the $1.4 billion project, expected to take five years, have derided HOT lanes as “Lexus lanes,” saying they will only be useful to the wealthy. But officials on Tuesday invoked the image of regular folks who need to be on time for jobs and family commitments, such as the working mother who needs to pick up her children from day care or the Little League coach who has to make it to a game. Those people might stay in the regular lanes on most days but would appreciate having the option to buy themselves a speedier ride when they’re running late, officials said.

The U.S. deputy transportation secretary, Vice Adm. Thomas J. Barrett, said he was one such commuter 20 years ago, when he lived in Fairfax and carpooled to his job at Coast Guard headquarters in the District. Because he carpooled, he could take Interstate 66, which is limited to vehicles with two or more people during rush hour. But to get from I-66 to his home, he had to travel on the Beltway, which has never had carpool lanes, also known as HOV or high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

“I was a soccer coach,” he said. “I missed practices, and I was delayed getting home, supporting my family and my community.”

The Bush administration is a big proponent of using tolls to control congestion and pay for road expansion. The federal government is lending $589 million for the construction, to be paid back from toll revenue.

The HOT lanes are being built by a partnership of two private companies, Transurban Group and Fluor Enterprises, which will operate the lanes once they are built. The project funding includes $349 million in private equity and $409 million in state funding. Fluor-Transurban is assuming the risk for the loans and bonds that make up the remainder.

Once the road is running, the state will also pay the operator to offset lost toll revenue if the number of buses and HOV riders rises above a certain percentage of total vehicles.

The new lanes have no toll booths but will use electronic readers through which drivers pass. Drivers will need to have a transponder such as E-ZPass.

Officials have yet to determine how they will enforce the HOV requirement for nonpaying vehicles, Miss Reese said.

Plans for HOT lanes on I-395 and I-95 in Northern Virginia are still in the review phase.

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