- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — After years of planning, construction will begin next spring on the new express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway, state transportation officials said yesterday.

The public-private project will cost about $1.7 billion — nearly double the projected cost two years ago — and will be completed in 2013, the Virginia Department of Transportation said.

VDOT Commissioner David S. Ekern said the agency has reached an agreement in principle with two private contractors — Transurban DRIVe and Fluor Enterprises — for design, construction, operation and maintenance of the high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. The project is intended to reduce the amount of time that commuters spend on the road in traffic-choked Northern Virginia.

“The project has been under development since 1994, and it is time for action to bring additional congestion relief to residents, visitors and businesses in the region,” Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said.

The plan calls for the private partners to build 14 miles of HOT lanes — two lanes in each direction — on the Beltway. Vehicles with three or more occupants can use the lanes for free, while those with fewer occupants will be charged tolls based on the level of congestion.

The average toll during rush hour is expected to be $5 to $6. The companies will collect the tolls and manage all operations of the HOT lanes, including repairs and maintenance, although the state will retain ownership and oversight of the lanes.

The companies also will build three new access points from the Beltway into Tysons Corner, along with HOV connections from Interstate 95 to the Beltway.

Plans previously called for 100 percent private funding of the construction costs. However, rising construction costs and project upgrades will require the state to chip in about $409 million.

“Certainly, as everybody knows, construction costs for concrete, steel and petroleum-based products has grown considerably — about 73 percent over two years,” Deputy Secretary of Transportation Barbara Reese told reporters.

Still, private companies are able to build such projects cheaper than the state. Even back in 2002, before the skyrocketing construction costs, a study found that it would cost VDOT about $2.4 billion to build the lanes.

The public-private partnership “brings what I believe is an affordable solution to the most congested highway corridor in Virginia,” Mr. Ekern said

Michael Kulper, a Transurban senior vice president, said the project “is a great example of what can be achieved when the government and the private sector work in partnership to deliver much-needed improvements to the transportation network.”

Stuart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, complained that the public has been kept largely in the dark about financial details of a deal that could benefit private investors more than taxpayers.

Mr. Ekern said that the partnership is “not a unique concept” and that there already have been some public hearings on the project.

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