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Virginia has high hopes for HOT lanes on the Beltway

- The Washington Times - Monday, November 12, 2012

Commuters may have shorter drive times on the Virginia side of the Capital Beltway with this weekend's opening of 14 miles of four high-occupancy toll lanes — a milestone public-private partnership that is one of the biggest transportation projects of its kind in the country.

Two inner high-occupancy toll — or HOT — lanes stretching from Springfield to the Dulles Toll Road in each directionare expected to provide relief to the perpetual traffic gridlock. HOT lanes are restricted to vehicles with a certain number of passengers -- three in this case — or vehicles that pay a toll.

The 495 Express Lanes, which have been under construction for four years, open Saturday sometime between midnight and 2 a.m., said Jennifer Aument, vice president of corporate relations at Transurban, one of two private companies that partnered with the Virginia Department of Transportation on the project. Restrictions and tolls on the HOT lanes will be in effect 24/7, Ms. Aument said.

"We are expecting this will become a major reliever of congestion on the Beltway in Virginia," said Sean Connaughton, Virginia transportation secretary. "It is going to provide extra capacity as well as transit opportunities which have not existed before."

Transportation officials say the lanes will offer a more reliable and predictable trip.

"Right now there is no choice," said Steve Titunik, communications director at the Virginia Department of Transportation. "You have to get on the Beltway and whatever the conditions are, that's what you have."

The 495 Express Lanes project cost $1.9 billion. Virginia paid $409 million, according to Mr. Titunik. The two companies in partnership with the state, Transurban — a company that develops toll roads with offices in Australia and New York — and Fluor — a Texas-based engineering and construction company with an office in Arlington — funded $349 million in private equity and also backed $1.2 billion in loans and bonds.The state paid $260 million for the replacement of aging infrastructure, including more than 50 bridges and overpasses, pedestrian walkways, arterialroads, soundwalls and ramps.

The two private companies will get the revenues from the tolls, but if the lanes are successful, the state will receive a cut. Mr. Titunik said that the money will be invested in maintenance.

Transurban has successfully worked with other states to develop HOT lanes. According to its website, travelers using express lanes in the Houston area saved about 20 minutes per trip. The company's website also touts a Transurban project in Southern California on which customers estimate they shaved nearly 30 minutes off their morning and afternoon commutes.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, has touted the public-private partnership as a successful piece of his comprehensive transportation plan.He has proposed improving transportation using initiatives like public-private partnerships and toll roads as part of his solution to the state's issues. This project was already in motion when Mr. McDonnell was elected in 2009.

Virginia's use of a public-private partnership for this project can be seen as a model for the rest of the nation, Mr. Connaughton said.

"The cost of projects is getting to the point where it is very difficult for the public sector to fund and manage them," he said. "Public-private partnerships will become the norm for all large projects in Virginia and across the country."

While the partnership provides funding, Mr. Connaughton said Virginia will have to find additional ways to raise transportation revenues. The General Assembly will get its chance to discuss new funding in its session next year.

"We have limited resources and ever-increasing needs," Mr. Connaughton said. "We're going to need to look at reliable, sustainable, funding for the future."

There are four large public-private transportation projects under way in Virginia, including express lanes on Interstate 95 — which will connect to the Beltway lanes in 2014 — the Rail-to-Dulles project, Midtown Tunnel in the Hampton Roads area and a road between Petersburg and Suffolk.

Once the express lanes open, commuters can access them north of the Dulles Toll Road and south of Braddock Road.

There are no physical toll booths, so all vehicles except motorcycles are required to have an E-ZPass to use the lanes. Vehicles with three or more people need an E-ZPass that can indicate carpool status and will not be charged a toll, but vehicles with one or two passengers and two-axle trucks will have to pay.

The lanes will employ dynamic toll rates, which fluctuate based on traffic conditions, time of day and trip length. According to VDOT, the average trip will cost $3 to $6 during rush hours and $1 to $2 during nonrush hours.

If a vehicle does not have an E-ZPass, an overhead license plate identification system takes a photo and generates an invoice. Violations for having fewer than three people in a car start at $50 and can go up to $1,000 for multiple offenses.

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