WASHINGTON – Better transportation projects meant to keep areas moving may not be worth it if they come with a high environmental price tag. Some see flaws with the planning.
As work on the newly announced Interstate 95 Express Lanes Project begins, crews are removing about 100 acres of trees and shrubs to make room.
Most of the trees and shrubs will be torn away from the median of I-95 at the southern edge of the project, between Dumfries Road in Prince William County and Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. It’s an area that runs about 9 miles long.
“We found that the studies really didn’t look at community and environmental impacts very much, or alternatives for the corridor,” says Stewart Schwartz, head of the region’s Coalition for Smarter Growth.
The coalition says its mission is to ensure that transportation and development decisions accommodate growth while revitalizing communities, providing more housing and travel choices, and conserving natural and historic areas.
“It’s a shame we are not looking farther ahead in our planning,” says Schwartz.
“At some point you ask the highway engineers, ‘At what point would you stop widening the highway?’ But under their projections, you’d never stop widening the highway.”
The Virginia Department of Transportation says it has been engaged with the public in the planning for the project, however.
“We are certainly committed to restoring what we can,” says Steve Titunuik, VDOT communications director.
He also says whenever possible, healthy trees will remain standing.
By comparison, the 18.8-mile InterCounty Connector in Maryland cleared about 750 acres of trees and shrubs, according to officials.
The I-95 express lanes will operate between Edsall Road in Fairfax County and Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The existing HOV lanes on I-95 will be extended and widened in spots.
Drivers will be able to use the lanes for free if they have three or more people in the car. Otherwise, drivers must pay a toll for the promise of a speedy commute.
The entire project is costing close to $1 billion, 90 percent of which is being paid for by Australian-based Transurban-Fluor, a private party.
The operator of the new lanes must keep traffic moving at 55 mph. To do that, tolls will rise and fall based on the level of congestion.
The idea is that as traffic increases, the toll will also increase, pricing some drivers out of the lanes and keeping traffic flowing.
The I-95 Express Lanes Project is expected to be finished in late 2014.