- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell made a strategic retreat from a key element of his vision for Northern Virginia’s roads. His transportation chief, Sean T. Connaughton, announced last week that Interstate 395 will no longer be part of the scheme to convert existing freeway car-pool lanes into “high-occupancy toll” (HOT) lanes. The shrewd maneuver has all but assured victory for Mr. McDonnell’s broader plan to see the commonwealth’s commuters tossing quarters into baskets each and every time they get behind the wheel.

Arlington County succeeded in excluding the Shirley Memorial Highway from the project with an expensive “not in my backyard” lawsuit based on the absurd premise that a reconfiguration of the existing lane footprint might somehow trigger ecological catastrophe. Under the revised HOT lane proposal, Transurban, an Australian firm, will remove shoulders and narrow the car-pool lanes south of the Beltway in a re-striping operation that will squeeze an extra lane of “new” capacity - in one direction - into the I-95 corridor.

The deal’s other vocal skeptic, Prince William County Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart, told The Washington Times that taking I-395 out of the picture satisfied his concern for the “sluggers” who create impromptu car pools for a free ride on the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into the capital. Mr. Stewart also credited the new administration for its willingness to address his problems. “They have been a lot easier to deal with, more forthcoming and friendly to Northern Virginia in particular,” he said.

In a conference call with reporters last week, Mr. Connaughton promised greater transparency. When asked if that meant the release of the draft contract between the Virginia Department of Transportation and Transurban, the answer was, “No.” It’s hard to imagine the public would embrace the fine details involved in having a foreign corporation impose tolls of $30 or more to drive on roads already paid for with taxes imposed on the commonwealth’s drivers. As if that weren’t bad enough, this re-imagined tolling boondoggle will require an estimated $1 billion in infrastructure spending. Under current market conditions, the private sector would never finance such a risky, uneconomic concept. That means Virginia taxpayers likely will pay a $250 million subsidy for the privilege of being tolled by Australians.

Looking westward shows how this will work out. Two years ago, a modest 10-mile HOT-lane project opened in the suburbs of Seattle. After Washington state taxpayers were soaked for $18.7 million to construct electronic tollbooths on the existing roadway, they were again charged a toll of up to $9 per trip. In the first quarter of fiscal 2011, it cost $223,029 to collect $163,449 in tolls. The state absorbs the loss while private contractors laugh all the way to the bank.

Unless the public strongly objects, the same insanity will descend on the Old Dominion. Interstate 95 through Virginia will become as festooned with the same tollbooths and congestion that blight states like New Jersey. Before that happens, Virginians have a right to review exactly how much they will be paying over the 75-year life span of this contract, as well as its full legal terms. If Mr. McDonnell intends to live up to his pledge of greater transparency, he will release the documents long before a contract is signed.