Potomac News Online | Toll lanes discussed to meet area’s transit needs

High occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, are the next wave in road funding nationwide because of gradual political acceptance and the lifting of federal restrictions, speakers at a regional transportation summit said Monday.

The transportation summit, organized by Fairfax Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-37th District, was held at George Mason University’s Fairfax campus Monday with officials from state boards, the private sector and area think tanks.

The discussion covered issues such as linking land use to road building, innovative public-private financing concepts like the Va. 28’s six interchange upgrades and HOT lanes for the Beltway, and shortfalls in funding to meet demand for new roads.

The political reality after last year’s failed sales tax referendum is that new taxes are not likely to be on the agenda for some time, said Roger Stough, a public policy professor at George Mason. But one viable option for new funding is the use of HOT lanes, he said.

“The ‘Lexus lane’ moniker is fading,” said Ken Orski, director of the Urban Mobility Corp. consulting firm that has studied HOT lanes. California had up to 91 percent approval ratings for its HOT on I-15 in San Diego, he said. The concept is carpoolers and bus services can use the new lanes, like HOV lanes, but additional traffic in the regular lanes can add in by paying a toll.

Virginia is considering a HOT lane proposal for the Beltway submitted by the Flour Daniel construction firm.

Federal legislation is pending that will remove restrictions for HOT lanes on all interstate highways, panelists said. There is support for HOT lanes in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Maryland and Northern Virginia, Orski said.

Audience questioning of panelists showed HOT lanes are not really free to taxpayers.

Orski said his group estimates tolls on I-495 HOT lanes would pay for 70 percent of the cost of widening the road, but another 30 percent would come from the federal government. If federal dollars were lacking, the state would have to pick up that portion, he said.

Hobie Mitchell, a representative on the Commonwealth Transportation Board that funds all Virginia highway projects, said federal dollars are tight. The federal gas tax can only support $220 billion in projects over six years, out of $375 billion worth that are sought.

Orski said the state or jurisdictions must also give “credit enhancements” or help guarantee payments of debt taken out for projects to allow the private companies to get a favorable interest rate. Such was the case with the Va. 28 project, but a HOT lane proposal for Va. 28 had such shaky financing the private firms pulled out, audience members said.

The bottom line for the state or localities is a reduction in their debt capacity, speakers said.

But some areas are ripe for HOT lanes. Interstate 81 has two public-private proposals under state consideration. Seventy percent of its truck traffic is through-Virginia traffic, so the toll revenue potential is strong, Orski said.

The summit speakers also tried to get a grasp on the overall problem of traffic congestion.

Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, said dramatic changes in how the area is developed would prevent having to spend billions in new highways. The under-used areas around the Vienna Metro are one example, he said. Most of the jobs in the Washington, D.C., region are going to be created within 20 miles of the center.

“The projected job growth in Prince William County and Loudoun County is infinitesimal as compared to the job growth in Arlington and Fairfax and other places,” Miller said.

Mitchell said smart-growth cannot go against the wishes of residents.

“In Vienna, the problem is the residents who live there don’t necessarily want to have it there, so you have to deal with that political reality.” But he said he agreed land use and transportation planning should be done in parallel.

One of the summit panelists showed ignorance about Prince William County.

Pat Herrity, director of the HOT lane-promoting group Transportation Choice, said his favorite question is asking how to get from Woodbridge to Tysons Corner using mass transit or HOV lanes in under two hours.

Thirty-four percent of the traffic to Tysons comes from I-95 South. There are no bus lines that run on the Beltway because it is too unpredictable and HOT lanes would create a route.

He said he’d pay someone with the answer $40.

An audience member informed him mass transit options from Woodbridge are easy: Take OmniRide to Franconia-Springfield Metrorail station and take the Fairfax Connector bus, or take the Virginia Railway Express to one of its Metro stops, take Metro to West Falls Church, then take a bus connector to Tysons.

Speaker said the problems of traffic can only be solved by informing the public and public officials of new ideas, a goal of the summit.

“I hope everyone leaves here with the commitment to press this debate forward,” Cuccinelli said.

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