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Private firm to build toll lanes in Va. on I-95

McLEAN, Va. — After years of discussion and debate, Virginia has reached a nearly $1 billion deal with a private contractor to build high occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia that planners hope will improve one of the region’s worst traffic corridors.

Under the deal announced Tuesday, private contractor Fluor-Transurban would finance 90 percent of the $940 million project, with the rest of the money coming from the state. The contractor would recoup its investment by collecting the tolls under a deal that allows the contractor to operate the road for the next 73 years. Virginia officials said Fluor-Transurban assumes all of the risk if it cannot recoup its investment through tolls. If the tolls provide an unexpected windfall, the state will share in the extra revenue in a range of anywhere from 5 to 40 percent.

The existing reversible HOV lanes on I-95 in Northern Virginia would be expanded from two lanes to three, and will be extended nine miles south to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County, the first time the lanes would extend into the outer suburb of Stafford. Carpoolers could use the lanes for free, while solo riders would pay tolls to use the lanes. Toll rates will vary, with higher rates in place during rush hour.

The existing HOV lanes are typically open to all drivers at non-peak hours; under the contract with Fluor-Transurban, the lanes will be restricted 24 hours a day to carpools of three or more or those willing to pay a toll. The lanes will continue to be reversible, pointed northbound in the morning rush, southbound in the afternoon rush and in the direction where additional lanes are most needed at all other times.

Drivers who opt not to carpool or pay the tolls can use the regular highway lanes.

The project will provide additional capacity on a stretch of I-95 — the nation’s busiest north-south highway — that has seen some of the most rapid population growth in the country. Prince William and Stafford counties have routinely seen some of the fastest growth rates in the country in the last few decades.

In a conference call with reporters, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said there is no cap on how high the tolls could go. The tolls will be a pure function of market demand, he said; Fluor-Transurban is required under the contract to raise the tolls as high as necessary during peak times to ensure that traffic moves at least 55 mph in the HOT lanes.

A similar project is already under way on the Capital Beltway. But the state’s share was significantly higher — about 20 percent — on the Beltway project, which Connaughton said reflects the technical difficulties associated with the construction occurring on the Beltway, which requires significantly more bridges and overpasses.

Virginia has embraced public-private partnerships and the creation of toll lanes as a way to provide relief to gridlocked Northern Virginia without a massive upfront investment of taxpayer money.

“With HOT lanes on both the Beltway and I-95, we will create a region-wide network of managed lanes that will enable travelers to get to and from some of Virginia’s most important employment centers and military sites,” Connaughton said in a statement.

Construction could begin as soon as spring and will be completed in 2015 if the schedule holds up.

The project has been in various planning stages for years but has faced a variety of obstacles. Arlington County filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project. The county argued that more highway lanes, even those used by carpoolers, were a narrow-minded solution to the region’s traffic problems, and said the project had not been properly reviewed. The state eventually agreed to drop Arlington County from the project; the toll lanes will now terminate on the north end at Edsall Road in Fairfax County just inside the Beltway. As originally conceived, the toll lanes would have run through Arlington County all the way up to the Potomac River and Washington, D.C.

Connaughton acknowledged that the Arlington lawsuit and the decision to remove Arlington from the project have had a significant impact. The state would not likely have had to kick in $97 million if Fluor-Transurban had been able to extend the project and charge tolls in Arlington; as originally conceived, the project would have been 100 percent privately financed, he said.

In addition, 50 percent of current HOV users continue on I-395 north into Washington and the inner Virginia suburbs, Connaughton said. Transportation officials said they are working to ensure that the northern terminus of the HOT lanes at Edsall Road will not itself become a bottleneck.

The project has also been received skeptically by Northern Virginia’s community of “slugs,” who informally gather at park-and-ride lots and other designated spots to form carpools of three to take advantage of the HOV lanes. Slugs say drivers will be less likely to pick up riders if they can use the HOV lanes simply by paying a toll.

Connaughton said Virginia is working hard to ensure that transit and carpooling will continue to thrive. VDOT says it will spend an additional $200 million to expand bus service in Spotsylvania, Stafford, Prince William and Fairfax counties, and construct more than 3,000 new park and ride spaces.

“What we want to see in this project is as much transit and carpooling as possible,” he said.