- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

On Virginia’s most congested highways — from the Capital Beltway to Interstate 95 — proposals are in place to add new lanes and alleviate overcrowding.

But with the state’s transportation budget stretched thin, the projects are being advanced by private contractors who are often promising to get the roads built with little or no public funding.

The use of such public-private partnerships to build roads will have significant implications for the state’s transportation network, say advocates and critics of the partnerships.

One consequence is drivers on new roads will be increasingly forced to pay higher-than-normal tolls to pay off bondholders wary that toll collections will be insufficient to repay them.

Another is that a private entity might reduce the width of lanes and shoulders.

Virginia passed the Public-Private Transportation Act about 10 years ago to encourage private investment in new roads and transportation projects. But only one project — the Pocahontas Parkway near Richmond — has been completed under the law.

However, in recent years private contractors such as the Fluor Corp. have proposed numerous projects. Virginia has been a national leader in advancing such proposals, and the Federal Highway Administration has shown a willingness to embrace them.

The proposals are subject to oversight by the state and federal highway agencies, but private companies conduct the engineering and develop the plans to pay for the roads.

Driver advocacy groups such as AAA traditionally have resisted such projects, citing the inequity of forcing tolls on some commuters and not others, when all drivers pay gasoline taxes and other general taxes to support public roads.

“But in Northern Virginia, we’ve said that we will support the concept reluctantly if it’s the only way to get roads built,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “In the last few years, we’ve come around on the issue.”

Proponents say the advantage in these partnerships is the sensibilities that private engineers bring to the design and engineering phases.

For example, a preliminary state study in 2002 on adding four HOV lanes to a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway estimated the cost at $2.4 billion and stated nearly 300 homes and businesses needed to be displaced.

When the private contractor Fluor Corp. did a preliminary estimate, it cut the cost to $700 million and required displacement of four homes.

The difference was the company left in place the existing Beltway interchanges, reduced the highway width, narrowed the shoulders and separated the regular and toll lanes with paint and yellow posts instead of a concrete barrier.

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