Monday, July 13, 2009

Virginia is trying to pull a fast one on motorists who live along the Interstate 95/395 corridor, and we all will be moving slower and paying more as a result.

By summer’s end, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) hopes to close on a second financial deal for a high-occupancy toll road, known as HOT lanes. The latest plan effectively hands ownership of Interstate 95/395 to a foreign corporation for the next 80 years.

Transurban Group, based in Melbourne, Australia, will lease the existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for the 64-mile stretch between Spotsylvania, Va., and the Pentagon. Transurban will be responsible for building a complicated series of new access ramps and performing upkeep and maintenance for the lanes. Drivers interested in a congestion-free ride can pay an expected $1 - or more - per mile to use the HOT lanes while the regular lanes are gridlocked.

If this arrangement sounds familiar, it’s because Transurban already is pouring concrete for 14 miles of brand-new toll lanes on the Capital Beltway near Tysons Corner.

The devil is in the details of these deals. The Beltway gets new lane construction where it is needed most; 95/395 does not. Instead, between Garrisonville Road and the Pentagon, three lanes will be squeezed into the existing two-lane space. To accommodate the extra toll lane, the existing lanes and the shoulders will be narrowed. This narrowing will make the road far more dangerous — but also far more profitable because the thoroughfare will carry more toll-paying automobiles.

The unlikely commuter who undertakes the entire 64-mile journey from Spotsylvania would pay a shocking $33,280 each year to use the toll lanes. More common commutes from a town such as Dumfries would cost drivers $8,840 each year. These initial amounts would adjust upward for inflation and added profit year on year until 2087.

HOT lanes are more restrictive than HOV lanes, which are open to anyone with two passengers during peak hours and anyone at all during non-peak hours. Only those who register for and install a special car-pool tracking device will be allowed into HOT lanes for free. Because it is in Transurban’s interest to minimize the number of nonpaying customers, VDOT agreed to contract language that will actively discourage ride sharing on the Beltway. If the rate of carpooling actually increases beyond a predetermined level, the state (i.e., taxpayers) must pay monetary penalties to the Australian company.

There is nothing market-oriented about HOT lanes. According to the Beltway contract, Virginia taxpayers are on the hook once again if, between now and 2087, improvements are made to free, non-tolled roads in the vicinity of the toll lanes. These “noncompete” agreements ensure that the toll-road company will enjoy a monopoly at taxpayer expense because surrounding roads will grow increasingly congested in the ensuing eight decades. In other words, free roads will be neglected and not expanded to create congestion that will force motorists into the tolled lanes.

The more area commuters know about what’s happening, the less they like it. Locally elected officials in Alexandria, Arlington and Prince William County aren’t buying it, either. Each of those jurisdictions has passed resolutions demanding answers to hard questions about the wisdom of the HOT lanes project.

The biggest culprit here is the Virginia General Assembly. In 1995, lawmakers dropped their responsibility and gave unelected bureaucrats free rein to sign deals like this. That leaves those of us who will face the consequences of increased congestion and accidents with little say in the matter. At this point, the only person who can stop this deal is VDOT Secretary Pierce R. Homer. Drivers interested in a speedier commute should let him know what they think at or 804/692-2581.

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