I-66 to get toll lanes outside, but not inside Beltway

MCLEAN, Va. — Congestion is a fact of life on Interstate 66 both outside and inside the Capital Beltway in Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington counties. Now the Virginia Department of Transportation says it will pursue High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes as the way to solve congestion from the Capital Beltway to U.S. 15.

The announcement came at a recent Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (NVTA) summit held in McLean. The agency had hinted and suggested that toll lanes were the favored option, but VDOT told the crowd more directly that toll lanes will be built.

“Out there today, you have a combination of general purpose lanes, shoulder lanes and HOV lanes. The ultimate configuration is looking at three free lanes and two HOT toll lanes. It’ll be similar to what you see on the Beltway today,” says VDOT Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick.

In his presentation, Kilpatrick says that VDOT is studying options that would either leave space for an extension of Metro’s Orange Line or add a barrier-separated space. One of the challenges to enforcing the current HOV lanes on I-66 is the lack of such a barrier, allowing HOV violators to weave in and out of the HOV lanes before a state trooper can spot them.

“We have a few tight spots near the Beltway at Nutley Street and a few other spots, but we’re confident this plan will work for us,” says Kilpatrick.

He adds that I-66 Express toll lanes also would provide better bus service. It would not be bus-rapid transit — a concept introduced in Arlington and Alexandria where buses get a dedicated lane where cars cannot go — but it would provide rapid bus service like the 495 and 95 Express Lanes.

It would likely have dynamic tolling, where prices fluctuate up and down based on the traffic in the main lanes and how many vehicles are already in the toll lanes.

Transurban argues that dynamic tolling allows them to guarantee a trip of 65 mph for any driver in the lanes at all times, even if the free lanes are suffering bumper-to-bumper gridlock.

“This is likely going to be a P3 project. This project will require public funding, in addition to the revenue generated by the tolls,” says Kilpatrick.

What is a P3?

That’s a public-private partnership, in which a private company leases a road or land from the state, then pays to build the project with its own debt, then pays back the loans through revenue generated after the road opens.

Transurban and VDOT worked together in a public-private partnership to build the 495 Express Lanes. They are also working together to build the 95 Express Lanes, due to open in winter 2015.

In Maryland, the Purple Line also will be built through a public-private partnership. The private company will incur the costs to build the light-rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton, then recover the costs through fares to ride the trains. The Purple Line could open in 2020.

In February 2015, VDOT will issue a Request for Qualifications, which helps identify what companies would be best suited to do the project.

VDOT would look for final state approval later in 2015; construction could begin as early as 2017. If the 29-mile I-95 Express Lanes project is a barometer, then I-66 toll lanes could open in 2020.

“This region is on the verge of having a network of HOT lanes that will make it possible to seamlessly travel around the region,” says Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.

But Del. Jim LeMunyon, R-67th District, is concerned that so much attention is focused on I-66 outside the Capital Beltway in Prince William and Fairfax counties, and not enough on solving congestion inside the Beltway, in Falls Church and Arlington.

“As I’m standing on their front porch, I’m just wondering what you think I should be telling them about that when I explain why VDOT is doing such a great job,” LeMunyon said at the NVTA forum.

Layne stepped in to answer for Kilpatrick: “I would not assume that we are not looking inside the Beltway. But when I mention that we are on the verge, in this region, of having a network of HOT Lanes, that is a piece — inside the Beltway, in either direction. It’s something that we have to be aware of and look at.”

However, he stopped short of telling LeMunyon and the audience that toll lanes would be built inside the Beltway. He stated that VDOT is looking at the options.

“Delegate LeMunyon, as you know, there’s both performance and political issues with that,” says Layne.

In 2009, Arlington sued VDOT over the I-95 Express Lanes. Arlington alleged in the federal lawsuit that creating the toll lanes would increase air pollution and add congestion on streets that connect to I-95, where cars without three or more people would have to exit before the 14th Street Bridge. VDOT decided to move the end point for the I-95 Express Lanes south to Turkeycock Run, just north of Edsall Road.

While Layne didn’t specifically mention the lawsuit, the implication was that the political issues would be centered around whether Arlington would file a similar lawsuit on I-66.

NVTA President Bob Chase said afterward that the express lanes should continue into Arlington and he hopes Arlington would not sue VDOT this time around.

Another option inside the Beltway could be the I-66 Bus on the Shoulder project. VDOT will begin a one-year pilot program in November to test five locations — three eastbound and two westbound. As WTOP previously reported, buses would only be allowed to use the shoulder lanes when there was significant traffic in the normal lanes. The buses would also be limited to 25 mph.

VDOT hopes to learn how much time bus riders can save with a shoulder option inside the Beltway. Eventually, VDOT hopes to find the money to build a two- mile bus-on-shoulder stretch from the Dulles Connector to Sycamore Street that could handle up to 33 buses per hour.

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