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Companies propose solutions to fix I-66 traffic

The red vehicle is traveling westbound on Interstate 66 in the HOV lane in Fairfax, Va. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON – At the same time drivers sit in the bumper-to-bumper traffic that plagues weekday commutes on I-66, an in-depth discussion is going on in regards to long-term solutions to solve the congestion woes along one the busiest highways in our region.

Late last month, nearly 20 companies responded to a Request for Information (RFI) from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) on how to solve the congestion.

The documents are now posted online, and reflect a complex debate about toll lanes, HOV rules, law enforcement, toll prices, public-private partnerships and the future of mass transit options, such as Metro, bus-rapid transit and light rail.

Among the RFI respondents were Transurban and Flour Enterprises, Inc. — companies that teamed up to construct and operate the 495 Express Lanes and the 95 Express Lanes in development. Both touted experience in projects that could relieve congestion on I-66, such as toll lanes and extending the 495/95 model to I-66.

“Transurban believes the best option for relieving congestion in the I-66 corridor is a managed lanes concept that would increase capacity, provide new travel choices, enable express bus routes and other transit improvements,” Transurban writes in its report.

“The inevitable complexity of construction in the I-66 corridor, substantial traffic levels, and the likely willingness of drivers to pay for faster travel options make the corridor an ideal candidate for a demand-risk public-private partnership,” the company writes.

The proposed model would allow VDOT to own the roadway, itself, but lease it to Transurban exclusively, and allow the company to incur the costs to build the lanes, in exchange for controlling and keeping tolls collected to pay down debt.

“Flour (Enterprises, Inc.,) sees the likelihood or probability of success in using this P3 (public-private partnership) model for the I-66 corridor improvements as very high. Much of this is due to the extensive and successful experience that VDOT has with this model,” Dan Stoppenhagen, executive director of transportation at Flour Enterprises, Inc., writes in its report.

“However, more importantly, the project fulfills a genuine need in the regional transportation network, and the resulting traffic demand increases the probability of successfully delivering this project years — or even decades — in advance of when it could have been (traditionally) delivered.”

Abertis, which has an office in the District of Columbia, presented a different option from the Transurban-Flour model.

“Abertis suggests a project that first turns the existing HOV lanes to HOT Lanes. This would provide immediate relief before and during construction and expansion,” says Abertis President Jordi Graelis in his report.

“Abertis also proposes adding an additional non-reversible lane in each direction, though, the availability of right-of-way could be a concern with this plan. One way to mitigate right-of-way needs is to shrink the width of the lanes from 12 feet to 11 feet and to subsequently reduce the speed limit (on I-66) from 55 to 45 mph for safety reasons. This solution will save space and money, and a guarantee of 45 mph should be sweet enough to entice toll payers.”

Others companies — such as Edgemoor Infrastructure, Clark Construction, Bechtel Corporation and Kiewit Infrastructure — are contract engineers looking to construct toll lanes on I-66, but are uninterested and unwilling to operate or maintain the toll facility.

“Edgemoor does not look to take on traffic and revenue risk. If that is the firm direction of the Commonwealth, we would team with a concessionaire that specializes in taking that risk, and Edgemoor would not play a role in the sponsorship beyond delivery of the asset,” Edgemoor Manager Director Greg Derby writes in his report.

Several of the contractors responding to the VDOT informational request pointed to the local toll roads that have gone under recently as a high risk, including Transurban-operated Pocahontas Parkway.

Transurban spokesman Mike McGurk told WTOP that the road — which is south of Richmond — is very different than the 495/95 Express Lanes and it would be wrong to compare the two.

The documents also reveal an interesting debate in regards to tolling. At issue: who would control toll prices, and would they be dynamic, like the 495 Express Lanes, or fixed, like the Dulles Toll Road and Maryland’s Intercounty Connector.

“We suggest that I-66 use the same dynamic pricing model for its managed lanes to maximize the revenue and be compatible with I-495. We also suggest implementing a direct connection from the I-495 Express Lanes to the I-66 managed lanes. This integration is practical because the majority of expected toll revenue comes from the vehicles using the path connecting the two interstates,” writes Joe Wingerter of the Kiewit Development Company in his report.

“We suggest utilizing the availability payment model. This would enable the state of Virginia to optimize the toll rates and collection mechanisms at I-66, relative to I-495, as the public is completely in charge of rates and managing the revenue collection on I-66.”

Drivers have complained about high toll rates on the Dulles Greenway, and some have complained about how high the dynamic tolls rates have gone on the 495 Express Lanes.

Tolls have climbed as high as $9.75 one-way during the rush hour, due to bumper- to-bumper traffic in the main lanes. Del. David Ramadan is suing the owners of the Dulles Greenway over the high tolls.

Another question remains whether toll lanes on I-66 could be separated from the main lanes.

On the Capital Beltway, plastic channelizing posts separate the main lanes and express lanes. On I-95’s HOV lanes, a concrete barrier separates the general lanes from the reversible lanes. Bifurcated lanes, as transportation officials say, prevent cars from weaving in-and-out of the lanes. This is an issue on I-66, where drivers break HOV rules during rush hours and sneak out of the lanes to prevent getting pulled over.

Companies, like Transurban and Flour, highly endorse the concept, while others told VDOT that there’s not enough room on I-66 to build separated lanes, calling it “unfeasible.”

Another company suggested a bold option.

“AECOM believes that given all the geometric, lateral space, right-of-way, regional land use, stormwater and other concerns, an elevated three-lane reversible, all-electronic toll facility with a dedicated like for bus rapid transit and two dedicated high-occupancy toll managed lanes will provide a holistic solution that will meet the purpose and need for this project. Elevating the two HOT lanes will allow the existing HOV lane to be converted to a General Purpose Lane, thus improving the capacity of the existing roadway,” AECOM Senior Vice President Sia Kusha writes in his report.

The other proposals call for three general purpose lanes and two toll lanes, without elevating any lanes.

AECOM’s proposal provides a different solution as the question becomes what role mass transit plays in the future of I-66. Most of the responding companies agreed that toll roads are only one part of a complex strategy to solve a complex problem.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board offered options, such as expanding VRE, Metro’s Orange Line and bus-rapid transit in bus-only lanes, as ways to promote more mass transit commuters.

“We believe that expanding the Metro to the west of Vienna is not currently justified, based on prospective ridership and current commuting patterns,” Antony Elkins of Cintra Infraestructuras writes in his report.

“Furthermore, any expansion of the Metro would have to have a separate funding mechanism to be for from federal or state sources and would be quite expensive.”

Elkins recommends VDOT acquires 60 feet of right-of-way along I-66, from the Capital Beltway to US Route 15 in Prince William County, Va., to build two toll lanes in each direction and eliminate drivers using the shoulder lanes during rush.

Elkins and other companies seem to overwhelmingly approve of the bus-rapid transit option over Metro expansion, although several suggested separating the two steps and leaving enough room after constructing toll lanes to support any option.

VDOT has set an aggressive schedule to sign a public-private partnership deal and get the construction going. Some suggested in the documents that VDOT’s timeline is too unrealistic.

VDOT wants work to begin in late 2015, but these companies suggest construction may not being until at least 2016. When toll lanes would finally open remains unclear.

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